It’s easy to talk about mass incarceration in numbers.
Arizona has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the nation. Arizona’s current prison population is nearly nine times greater than the state’s prison population in 1980. On average, people released from prison last year served roughly 31 percent more time than the average person released in 2009.
But behind these numbers are real people. About 42,000 people are locked in Arizona state prisons on any given day. That’s 42,000 people who, like all of us, have their own unique stories, memories, successes, and mistakes – 42,000 people with moms, dads, brothers, sisters, children, and friends whose lives are also affected.
One might assume the explosive growth in Arizona’s prison population is due to a growing state population or, perhaps, a dramatic increase in crime. But an eye-opening analysis released this week by the ACLU of Arizona’s Campaign for Smart Justice proves these ideas, and many other misconceptions about mass incarceration, wrong.
The report is part of the ACLU’s 50-State Blueprints project — the first-ever comprehensive, state-by-state analysis examining the drivers of incarceration and recommending better ways to manage criminal justice.
One of the key findings is that our high incarceration rate is driven by policy choices, not crime.
We’ve heard it in political campaigns and at the state Legislature for years. Politicians use “tough-on-crime” rhetoric to gain votes without any regard for the well-being of people’s lives.
The results are policies that come at a significant cost to taxpayers – both in terms of resources and public safety – because they drive people into prison with hardly any opportunities for rehabilitation. This contributes to the likelihood that people who have served their sentence will return to prison shortly after their release.
Arizona’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws require judges to impose unnecessarily long prison sentences for many crimes, including drug crimes that make up the largest portion of prison admissions.
Once in prison, state law forces people to serve 85 percent of their sentence, removing any incentive to participate in rehabilitation programs to earn early release credit.
People aren’t getting the resources they need to ensure success upon release. Then, if they wind up back in prison, they are labeled “repeat offenders” – a term used to drive lawmakers’ and prosecutors’ narratives that all people behind bars belong there. That is not justice.
Many Arizona prosecutors, also known as county attorneys, wield tremendous influence at the Legislature and push for the extreme policies that drive mass incarceration. Just this past session, these elected officials supported a bill that would have made Arizona’s opioid epidemic even worse by requiring mandatory minimum sentences for people who sell opioids, even if they themselves are struggling with drug addiction.
This approach to mass incarceration isn’t making Arizona safer. It’s driving more people into prison for longer amounts of time and costing taxpayers billions of dollars.
It’s also having a disparate impact on people of color. Arizona has the highest rate of incarcerated Latinos in the nation and the sixth highest rate of incarcerated black people in the nation.
If harmful and reckless laws and overzealous prosecutors created this mass incarceration crisis, reform-minded lawmakers and prosecutors can help us reverse the damage.
First, the Legislature can reduce mandatory minimum sentences and reform sentencing enhancements that drive up sentencing ranges based on other criminal convictions. Arizona’s sentencing enhancement laws are among the harshest in the country.
Second, Arizona should reform its “truth in sentencing” laws and expand opportunities for people to reduce their sentences by earning credits through educational and vocational programs while in prison.
Third, Arizona should do more to reduce the number of people entering prison in the first place by investing in alternatives to incarceration that offer support services such as substance abuse treatment, mental health care, employment, housing, and vocational training.
If Arizona started on these reforms now and cut the prison population in half by 2025, we would have saved taxpayers more than $1 billion. That’s money that could be spent on education, parks, libraries, and health services.
More importantly, if Arizona started on these reforms now, we would prevent countless people from entering a system that destroys lives, families, and communities.
It’s time for Arizona lawmakers to invest in people, not prisons.
— Alessandra Soler is executive director of the ACLU of Arizona.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.