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Tough-on-crime prosecutors distort truth, block prison reform

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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.

Ashley Nguyen

Ashley Nguyen

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Bill Montgomery – the top prosecutor in Arizona’s largest county – has emerged as the lead spokesperson for Arizona’s outdated justice system, insisting at every turn that Arizona doesn’t need reforms proven so successful elsewhere.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.

Jay Jenkins

Jay Jenkins

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:

MythArizona is already a national leader in treating and not incarcerating drug users and those with mental illness. Further reform would only benefit drug traffickers.

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.

Myth95 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.

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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.

5 comments

  1. Thank you for this very informative piece. This information should be published by every news outlet in the state.

  2. A whole lot of Arizonans remain big on punishing people already on the outs.

    It satisfies in some way their romantic longing for a “frontier justice” that never was.

    Or maybe it’s just their religiosity, their need for Original Sin to be harshly punished, as if that will immunize them from it.

    Whatever it is that’s keeping Arizona stuck in the 14th Century, isn’t it about time to give it up? Starting with our elected and appointed “leaders”?

  3. Miss “Wynn” writes a good argument. But, Bill-O is more interested in retaining his base of rabid “nativists”. Prison reform includes de-funding the billions of dollars Gov. Ducey (R) – Az has doled out to the many private “for profit” prisons that dot the Arizona landscape. They have quotas of prisoners written into those private contracts! Plus, the matching Fed dollars that come with the influx of prisoners into the respective counties. Oh, and the jobs, too, that come with a shiny new private prison in the neighborhood. Convict!

  4. Bill Montgomery needs to be recalled as soon as possible Once this is accomplished he needs to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law for his actions. I am sure he will enjoy his stay at one of the numerous for profit prisons he helped to create. It will be a long stay because for profit prisons like to find ways to keep you there as long as possible

  5. Thank you so much for publishing this article…. Our entire Justice system needs revamped if all it takes are some threats to keep Arizona from joining the ranks of prison reform. I have a story and Yavapai county is running neck and neck with Maricopa county, when it comes to fraudulent practices of the county attorney’s office. They are minions practicing their pitches and watching as they turn a blind eye to those they manipulate and control, coercing their victims into submission. Their victims are toyed with and forced to admit to felonies and sign off on plea deals that are never taken off the books. Bogus plea deals, stacked charges and lies keep their victims in prison for years. They destroy any credibility of those they’ve incarcerated for non violent drug charges. Mere targets of the justice system these county attorneys refer to as a life of crime. Thank You Doug Ducey for seeing through the hazing and the attempt to water down SB1334.

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