Arizona is at a crossroads. Should we continue to build more costly prisons and fill them with low-level offenders? Or should we follow the lead of many other conservative states that reserve expensive prison beds for violent offenders, and direct the savings to programs that have been proven to reduce repeat offenses?
A new study by the bipartisan group FWD.us provides important information into what is driving the dramatic growth in Arizona’s prison population. The report — prepared in accordance with national standards, by researchers with extensive corrections data experience — analyzes data from the Arizona Department of Corrections covering more than 30 years and nearly half a million records.
The FWD.us report has several key insights. First, our prison population is more than 12 times larger today than it was 40 years ago and has grown at three times the rate of the national prison population. Today, Arizona has the fourth highest imprisonment rate in the country, and our prisons cost taxpayers more than $1 billion each year.
Much of this prison growth comes from decisions to send more and more people convicted of non-violent crimes to prison — an 80 percent increase since 2000. In that time, the number of people admitted to prison for drug offenses has doubled. More people are now sent to our prisons for drug crimes than all violent offenses combined! The number of people sentenced for the lowest drug crime – simple possession – has grown from 1,414 in 2000 to 3,416 in 2017 – more than doubling in just 17 years.
Some prosecutors and law enforcement officials claim that Arizona’s prison population growth is justified because it led to less crime. What they don’t tell you is that, in the last decade, 32 states have successfully reduced both crime and imprisonment by reserving costly prison beds for violent criminals and putting the savings into programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism. Arizona is not one of these states. Most importantly, violent crime in these 32 states has dropped at double the rate it has in Arizona.
Fortunately, Arizona can look to two nearby states for models of reform — Utah and Texas. Both states implemented reforms proven to reduce recidivism. Essential to passing these reforms was a thorough review of their prison data – as FWD.us has done for Arizona – and using the data to address the hidden drivers of high incarceration rates.
Consider tough-on-crime Texas. In 2007, the Lone Star State scrapped plans to build more prisons, and instead funneled millions into drug courts, expanded drug treatment and mental health services. As a result of the reforms, Texas has been able to close eight prisons, and saved more than $3 billion in prison costs. But even more impressive, Texas’ crime rate dropped to the lowest level since 1967!
In 2015, Utah passed comprehensive reforms that reclassified some drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, among other evidence-based policies. As a result, Utah’s prison population dropped 9 percent from 2015 to 2017, and the state is now projecting it will eliminate $500 million in prison costs and redirect nearly $14 million into strategies proven to reduce recidivism — all while reducing crime.
These reforms are not the creation of some liberal think tank. They are supported by conservatives such as former governor of Texas and current U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. Other outspoken conservatives such as Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, former Senator Jim DeMint, Ambassador Sam Brownback (former governor and senator from Kansas), David Keene who was president of the NRA, and former Congressman J.C. Watts are solidly supporting our reform efforts.
While Arizona’s neighbors and states across the country are benefiting from less crime, lower recidivism, and greater tax savings, Arizona is stuck with outdated, failed, and expensive policies.
Consider this, if Arizona’s imprisonment rate matched Utah’s post-reform, we would save $620 million a year. Texas has already saved more than $3 billion. And countless offenders have successfully returned to their communities, and become good parents, good neighbors, and taxpayers! Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but Arizona is filling ours with folks we’re just mad at. We simply can’t afford to continue with these expensive policies that don’t give us as much public safety as we should be getting for more than $1 billion. It’s time to join with other conservative states and reform our criminal justice system.
Pat Nolan is the director of the American Conservative Union Foundation Center for Criminal Justice Reform, and is a leader in the national conservative movement. He and his family live in Prescott.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.