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Arizona lags the nation in criminal justice reform


In a recent guest opinion, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery peddles a grab bag of outdated and weak measures – some over 40 years old – to claim that Arizona leads in criminal justice reform. If only.

In fact, while a significant number of states have embraced measures that have simultaneously reduced their prison population and crime rates, Arizona continues to adhere to a “lock ‘em up” mentality at great cost to taxpayers and with no corresponding public safety benefit. Let’s face it, rather than a national leader in criminal justice reform, Arizona is a national laggard.

Kirsten Engel

Kirsten Engel

Research by Arizona-based and national organizations (including American Friends Service Committee-Arizona, ACLU Arizona, the Vera Institute of Justice and demonstrates the failure of incarceration to make us safe. Increased incarceration is associated with zero reduction in violent crime and, in some instances, may actually increase crime. We know that high rates of imprisonment:

Break down social and family structures and remove parents and other caregivers from the home who would otherwise nurture children.

Deprive communities and individuals of income and earning potential.

Confine people to the prison environment where drugs can be easily obtained.

Nineteen states, including our neighbors Utah, Colorado and Nevada, have successfully decreased both imprisonment and crime rates, using crime prevention, alternatives-to-incarceration, and community corrections approaches. When New Jersey decreased its incarceration rate by 37 percent between 2000 and 2015, it also saw a 30-percent decrease in crime during this same period. In contrast, West Virginia, with the largest increase in incarceration rates during this period – 83 percent – experienced a 4-percent INCREASE in crime.

Arizona now claims the fourth highest incarceration rate in the nation. While imprisonment shrunk nationally by 6 percent in the last decade, it grew in Arizona by 11. In fact, since 2000, Arizona’s prison population has grown twice as fast as its population. And despite evidence demonstrating that long sentences are ineffective in reducing crime, Arizona keeps people in prison 25 to 100 percent longer than the national average.

It is easy to see why Arizona currently spends over one-tenth of its budget on its prison system. Arizona is the ONLY state in the nation for which the simple possession of marijuana is a felony. Possession of any amount of any illicit drug is a felony, as is possession of any drug paraphernalia – residue, a lighter, wrapping papers.

In Arizona, conviction for the sale of drugs – even minor amounts sold to support the person’s drug addiction – carries the same sentence as manslaughter, armed robbery or kidnapping.

Many states apply harsher sentences to repeat offenders only where their current and prior felonies were violent offenses. But in Arizona, a person faces mandatory prison time and an enhanced sentence for a second offense, even if the current and the former offense were non-violent in nature. For example, a Class 6 drug possession prior felony and a Class 2 violent prior carry the same weight as repetitive offenses for sentencing purposes.

Montgomery repeats the mischaracterization of our current prison population – that it consists of solely violent and repetitive offenders – found on the Department of Corrections website. Not only are many of those repeat offenders currently serving time for nonviolent drug offenses, but the DOC counts as a violent offender any person with any prior dangerous offense on their record, regardless of when it occurred and regardless of whether the person is currently serving prison time for a violent offense. In fact, seven of 10 prison admissions in Arizona in 2017 were for nonviolent crimes, an 80-percent increase since 2000.

And even though the federal funding that drove states to adopt it dried up long ago, Arizona remains one of only two states still adhering to “Truth in Sentencing,” which requires offenders serve 85 percent of their sentence. By contrast, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico allow certain inmates to reduce their sentence through parole, good behavior and prison programming participation. They have reduced the average prison stay of inmates to 60, 63 and 59 percent of their original sentence.

Finally, other states have reformed probation laws, including barring prosecutors from incarcerating people charged with technical violations. But not Arizona.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter if you call Arizona a criminal justice reform leader or laggard. What really matters is whether our criminal justice laws work. Evidence shows that Arizona’s lock ‘em up laws are not keeping us safe. Instead, we send far too many people to prison for far too long at great cost to the offender’s family and community and at great taxpayer expense with little to none of the taxpayer money going toward education or programs to reduce recidivism post-release. Arizona spends $23,826 per inmate, per year, more than we spend per student at our public universities.

Bill Montgomery is among a small but powerful minority of people opposed to criminal justice reform in Arizona. Fortunately, the tide is changing. I was honored to work with a bipartisan group of legislators over the past year, hearing from people involved at all levels of the criminal justice system – law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, prisoners, probation officers and advocates – all committed to improving justice and public safety. These bipartisan efforts resulted in draft legislation to reduce Arizona’s record-high incarceration and recidivism rates by de-felonizing marijuana possession, revising drug sentencing, providing for the expungement of felony records under certain conditions and putting judges back into the sentencing process.

We can do better. Criminal justice reform can and must be a top priority for the legislature during the 2019 session.

— Kirsten Engel, a Democrat, represents Legislative District 10 in the Arizona House and is a member of the House Judiciary Committee in the 54th Legislature.


  1. Good research. Well written. Why was Engels silent on the over-policing, over charging and racial profiling of communities of color? As well, One of the largest drivers of mass incarceration is cash bail. Finally, we need to treat drug addiction and substance misuse as the mental health issues that they are and not incarcerated them away.

  2. Thank you for an eye-opening rebuttal. Governor Ducey wants Arizona to be the number one state to live, work, play, recreate, retire, visit, do business, and get an education. How will this happen if people can have their lives and families ruined by a mistake? How can the state invest in growth opportunities and address issues such as paying our teachers, dealing with a water shortage and preparing for climate change if we spend our tax dollars on incarcerating people?

    Recidivism reduction efforts are currently focused on reducing technical violations. Perhaps the consequences of technical violations need to be dealt with as well.

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