While the criminal justice reform movement gains momentum across the country, Arizona remains on the outside looking in. Even as more conservative states with a tradition of harsh justice reduce prison populations through smart reforms that target the root causes of crime, Arizona persists in the failed policies of mass incarceration, wasting resources to imprison low-level offenders.
Data in two recently published reports detail what an outlier Arizona has become and how badly reform is needed. As neighboring states save money, reduce crime, and enhance public safety, Arizona remains stuck in the past with the nation’s fourth-highest incarceration rate and $1 billion spent annually on its crowded prisons.
Why has Arizona fallen so far behind?
One reason is that influential tough-on-crime prosecutors, eager to preserve their own power, use cherry-picked data and long-discredited talking points to stoke fear of reform. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery – the top prosecutor in Arizona’s largest county – has emerged as the lead spokesperson for Arizona’s outdated justice system, insisting at every turn that Arizona doesn’t need reforms proven so successful elsewhere.
It’s a familiar problem, one we also confronted in Texas. In the late ‘90s, Texas was filling new prisons nearly as fast as it could build them. The state’s “lock ‘em up” culture was defended by prosecutors who saw long sentences and high conviction rates as the chief goals of criminal justice. But eventually research and hard data cut through the rhetoric, and a bipartisan alliance coalesced around the plain truth that mass incarceration had failed by any metric. In the last 10 years, policy shifts toward treatment and alternatives to incarceration have reduced Texas’ prison population, dropped the crime rate, and sparked costs savings projected to reach $3 billion.
As the reform debate in Arizona plays out in a similar fashion, it’s vital to debunk the arguments that Mr. Montgomery and other prosecutors use to thwart change. Here are three of the most common:
Fact: Since 2000, the number of people imprisoned for simple drug possession has jumped 142 percent, and last year it was the single most common reason for a new prison sentence. Mr. Montgomery is notorious for his punitive stance on drugs and once took the stance that even card carrying medical marijuana patients could be criminally prosecuted if they used marijuana extracts, such as oils. Indeed, one report shows that drug cases represent the overwhelming majority of charges filed in Maricopa County, with 45 percent of the charges filed being for drug possession.
Myth: 95 percent of Arizona’s prisoners are violent or repeat felony offenders.
Fact: This statistic from the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council is highly misleading. For one, its broad definitions of “violent” and “repeat” offenders are highly debatable. But even setting that aside, the sleight of hand here is treating anyone with a record, even for something as minor as a probation violation, the same as someone convicted of a violent offense. In truth, 70 percent of prison admissions in Arizona are for non-violent offenses, and since 2000 the number of people imprisoned for non-violent crimes has grown 80 percent.
Myth: “You have to be committed to a life of crime to go to prison in Arizona.”
Fact: Those are Mr. Montgomery’s words. In fact, since 2000, the number of people sent to prison for a first-time felony conviction has tripled, and first-time convictions accounted for 41 percent of prison admissions last year. Mr. Montgomery’s talking point also dangerously ignores the roles that drug addiction, mental illness, and prison itself play in criminal behavior and recidivism. Most people with repeat offenses are not career criminals; they are people who need treatment and a real chance to succeed.
In March, Mr. Montgomery said that most people who call for criminal justice reform have “no data to support it.” Perhaps that is the biggest myth of all, or at least the most ironic. The evidence that Arizona’s criminal justice system is broken and overly dependent on prison is overwhelming. Texas saw similar evidence and was compelled to start down the path of reform. So did Utah and Nevada and even Louisiana, not long ago dubbed “the world’s prison capital.” In Arizona, prosecutors should not be allowed to bury the truth any longer.
Jay Jenkins is the Harris County Project attorney at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition
Ashley Nguyen is an intern with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a student at Rice University and an Arizona native.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.