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Much not told in ACLU report on criminal justice

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Arizona’s criminal statutes defining crimes and providing for sentences have worked to protect Arizonans and enhance public safety. Between 2000 and 2016, Arizona’s overall crime rate has fallen 41 percent. Since requiring offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their time for the majority of felonies committed in our state, what is called “truth in sentencing,” Arizona’s overall crime rate has fallen by 58 percent. You would not know that, though, if you only read the ACLU’s “Blueprint for Smart Justice.” You also would not know that 95 percent of Arizona’s inmates are incarcerated for a violent offense, having repeatedly committed felonies, or both.

Bill Montgomery

Bill Montgomery

Simply reading the ACLU’s letter in the Arizona Capitol Times on September 7, 2018, you would not know that for every violent and for the majority of property crimes, there is a crime victim. You would not know that by incarcerating those most responsible for the amount of crime in our community and the violence perpetrated against our fellow citizens saves our society and criminal justice system money by preventing additional crimes and victims. You also would have a vastly skewed understanding of how a felony sentence is imposed.

For 70 percent of the criminal offenses sentenced each year, offenders are sentenced to probation. Those numbers also hold for us in Maricopa County where we additionally offer diversion and deferred prosecution programs for substance abuse and first time felons, something left out of the ACLU Report, as well. In fact, our Felony Pretrial Intervention Program has proven to be of great success. Started in July of 2015, 262 people had completed the program and as of July 2018, only 14 had committed a new felony. That’s a recidivism rate of just 5 percent. Yes, we are expanding that program as a result.

As for the numbers of currently incarcerated drug offenders, the ACLU’s Report and letter continue to push a narrative that ignores the environment in which crime is committed and the criminal histories of those incarcerated. Looking at current statistics, 11.3 percent of those in Arizona’s prisons are incarcerated for drug sales/trafficking. Of that percentage, 24 percent are criminal aliens. With the continuing reality that Arizona is a major thoroughfare for drug smuggling into the United States due to the exploitation of our unsecured southern border by Mexican drug cartels, it is no wonder that we see these numbers. Relatedly, according to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, Arizona has the third highest number of incarcerated criminal aliens behind only Florida and Texas. That helps place into context the percentage of incarcerated Latinos in Arizona prisons. But you wouldn’t know about those numbers or the overall criminal environment if all you read was the ACLU Report or letter of September 7.

With respect to drug possession offenders, and using data from the Department of Corrections for October 2017, 3,775 were incarcerated for drug possession. In the breakdown of the numbers, 235, or .6 percent were incarcerated for marijuana, methamphetamine amounted to 2,469 or 65.4 percent, and other drugs amounted to 1,071 or 28.4 percent. Of the 3,775, 46.5 percent had a violent prior felony offense and over 97 percent had a prior felony conviction. For the percentage without a prior felony, in Maricopa County the typical inmate had been convicted of an offense related to heroin or methamphetamine and refused drug treatment and/or rejected probation, which are almost the exclusive means for going to prison for the first time on a drug offense and only after being given multiple opportunities to succeed.

Having highlighted the gross deficiencies in the ACLU’s Report and September letter, there are significant areas of agreement to address future performance of our state’s criminal justice system. I would like to see a significant reduction in the state’s prison population as a result of reducing recidivism and we have a lot of room to work with here. The most recent DOC monthly report, available at https://corrections.az.gov/reports-documents/reports/corrections-glance, states “[s]eventy-seven percent of inmates assessed at intake have significant substance abuse histories.” Yet only 711 or 1.7 percent receive addiction treatment.

What if we provided substance abuse treatment from the point of admission, and cognitive behavioral treatment? What if we just started with drug possession offenders? Re-entry programs are showing significant promise in reducing recidivism and so are diversion and deferred prosecution programs utilizing substance abuse treatment and cognitive behavioral therapies. We should be implementing similar programs over the duration of an inmate’s incarceration. Then, by reducing recidivism we can manage a steady reduction in the prison population without gambling on public safety, and Arizonans would be able to enjoy parks, educational opportunities, visit our libraries, and take advantage of health services in safety.

Bill Montgomery is the Maricopa County attorney.

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

One comment

  1. If you only read Bill Montgomery’s opinion, you might think that longer incarceration was the reason for lower crime rates. You would not know about other factors — more influential factors — that worked to reduce crime. How much deterrence is provided by sentencing has been disputed in rational studies, but you wouldn’t know that if you only read Montgomery’s opinion. If sentencing only marginally impacts crime commission, counting on longer sentencing to reduce crime is like imagining that longer radiation treatments would prevent having got cancer in the first place. Foolish? Yes — in both cases.

    But longer sentencing might keep people from committing future crimes, right? If you only read Montgomery’s opinion, you wouldn’t know how many crimes are committed in prison. And you wouldn’t know how many commit crimes after release. Tellingly, Montgomery hopes to reduce recidivism — but never mentions the current recidivism rate. If longer sentencing was the silver bullet Montgomery wants you to believe, you’d think recidivism would not be an ongoing problem.

    Of course no Montgomery opinion would be complete without raising the issue of illegal aliens and drug trafficking. He dedicates an entire paragraph to Latinos and drug cartels. But the key facts are: “Looking at current statistics, 11.3 percent of those in Arizona’s prisons are incarcerated for drug sales/trafficking. Of that percentage, 24 percent are criminal aliens.” OK, 24% of 11.3% is 2.8%. If you only read Montgomery’s opinion, you might think that a huge percentage of felons in Arizona prisons are drug-dealing Latinos. But if you did the math, you’d see less than three per cent of the Arizona prison population are drug-dealing Latinos. And then you might ask, what do drug-dealing Latinos have to do with the justification of long prison sentences? And the answerr is: nothing, but it sure helps to hide a weak argument.

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