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Arizona leads the way in criminal justice reform


Reminiscent of the movie “Groundhog Day,” we are once again treated to out-of-state authors prescribing changes to Arizona’s criminal justice system with little understanding of how our laws work and less about our crime. “Tough-on-crime prosecutors distort truth, block prison reform,” December 14, 2018.

Bill Montgomery

Bill Montgomery

First, the out-of-state authors can’t face facts. Arizona leads in criminal justice reform. We ensured fair and just sentencing by establishing a presumptive sentencing system in 1977. We passed a Crime Victims Bill of Rights in 1990. We’ve avoided using prison as a sanction and mandated treatment for an offender’s first two drug use/possession offenses since 1996, long before other states even started moving toward treatment options over prison for those fighting addiction. In 2009, we raised the threshold amount for filing felony theft charges. In 2012, in partnership with prosecutors, the Arizona Legislature expanded deferred prosecution and educational and treatment opportunities for offenders with a prior felony conviction. Furthermore, in 2017, the Legislature provided funding for prosecutors across the state to implement intervention programming, something Maricopa County began piloting in 2015.

In the last fiscal year, Maricopa County referred over 3,000 individuals to substance abuse treatment programs and over 2,500 successfully completed treatment. Additionally, a diversion program for other first-time felony offenders saw over 250 successful completions since its inception in 2015, with a 5 percent recidivism rate. Due in part to the success of these and other programs, Arizona’s prison population is seeing another period of decline year over year and for the second time in the last ten years – that’s success.

Second, it might shock the out-of-state authors to learn that prosecutors in Arizona do not tell people what crimes to commit or tell police who to arrest. We must address crime as it comes, which for us includes the reality that Arizona is a major thoroughfare for drug smuggling into our country. The cases we handle start by someone committing a crime and then police making an arrest, conducting an investigation, and then submitting it for our review. Evidence then dictates what charges to file and the harm caused, weapon used, and prior criminal history will inform how the case is resolved and the sentence a convicted criminal will face. Likewise, when there is a question over the implementation of a criminal statute like Arizona’s Medical Marijuana Act, prosecutors ask courts to decide instead of taking unilateral action. Maybe that’s just an Arizona thing.

The out-of-state authors ignore objective evidence of criminal justice system outcomes. The truth is Arizona’s overall index crime rate is the lowest it has been since 1963. That’s success. Similarly, Arizona’s violent, property, murder, robbery, larceny-theft, and auto theft crime rates are also the lowest they have been in past 40 to 50 years. Historically low crime rates are certainly not evidence of failed policies.

Furthermore, our prison population is made up almost exclusively of violent and/or repetitive offenders. The fact that prosecutors and defendants negotiate for a sentence as a first-time offender does not mean that they are going to prison for a first offense. The reality is that the overwhelming majority, due to Arizona law, are imprisoned after having committed prior felony offenses. Arizona law only calls for a prison sentence on a first offense where the criminal used a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument, caused serious physical injury, committed a dangerous crime against a child, is a serious drug trafficker or dealer, or committed certain sexual offenses. For those who care to actually check Arizona data, monthly reports are available on the Arizona Department of Corrections website, which shows who is in Arizona’s prisons. However, you would have to take the time to read Arizona laws and check objective facts to avoid making such a silly conclusion like the authors made.

Lastly, Arizona is tired of trespassers into our public policy process from California Billionaires like Tom Steyer, megalomaniacal New York billionaires like George Soros, to Silicon Valley dreamers like This latest swing and a miss comes from, according to its website, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a nonprofit entity that “advances solutions and builds coalitions to reduce mass incarceration and foster safer Texas communities.” Given this mission, I suspect that Arizonans might wonder why all the misinformation about Arizona?

Arizona’s criminal justice system is not perfect. There is always room for improvement in any system, and I and other prosecutors remain willing to engage in productive discussions and initiatives to improve criminal justice system outcomes for crime victims, the public we serve, and defendants to reduce recidivism. However, false narratives devoid of facts from outside agenda-driven entities and individuals unwilling to acknowledge Arizona’s successes aren’t worth the time it takes to scan their fiction.

— Bill Montgomery is the Maricopa County attorney.


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


  1. Arizona may have come a long way in criminal justice reform, but to say Arizona is leading the charge is faulty and fails to counter the comparative analysis done by the “out of state agitators.” This op-ed’s argument needs to use data that indicates how implementation of policies have played out in the real world. Passing bills or acts does little if implementation is ineffective.

  2. California-born Bill Montgomery claims “Arizona is tired of trespassers into our public policy process from California.” although his beef is apparently with a Texas think tank. Bill likes to think Arizona is leading the way on prison reform, although most of his “evidence” happened decades ago. And after saying police and prosecutors don’t determine the crimes that people commit, he turns around and claims Arizona’s lowest in decades overall index crime rate is proof current policies are successful. So to cover up his lack of evidence and absence of logic, Bloviatin’ Bill resorts to condescension as his main argument. Who knows why he’s so sensitive about all this.

  3. Mr Montgomery continually brings up the “fact” that Arizona prisons are comprised largely of “violent offenders”. I know someone who had no previous criminal record and went to prison as a 21 year old because he TEXTED a girlfriend after she took out a restraining order (she asked him to text her because their child was supposedly in the emergency room which was not true) He went to prison for 6 months in the second most violent place in the Arizona prison system, (Lewis) and now his life as a “violent offender” is forever changed. For anybody who reads and is interested in our criminal “justice” system, here in Arizona,they find out early that the term “violent offender” is used in different contexts. Mr Montgomery brags about the extremely low crime rates we have and yet we’re building another prison so we can house all our “violent offenders”.

  4. I find the prosecutors Bill Montgomery and Barbara la Wall in Tucson and else where in the state need to be more transparent. And Mr. Montgomery needs to know that the opinion article from the American Conservative Union is headed by Pat Nolan that lives in Prescott, Az. not exactly an outsider. How many mentally ill does Arizona’s prisons house and what kind of treatment do they receive? And the private prison industry makes billions off of Arizona prisons. The state has 8 private prisons and they are a business. They don’t care about the welfare of the prisoners, they are in a business to make money. Shame on Arizona!!

  5. This is not true Bill Montgomery you lock up people in prison for using another name for utilities and paying the bill . I know this for a fact

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