Arizona’s justice system is at a breaking point. In the last 20 years, our prison population has grown seven times faster than our general population, putting us in the unenviable position of having the fifth highest imprisonment rate in the country. Our prisons now cost taxpayers $1 billion a year.
Most of these additional prisoners are non-violent offenders. Arizona locks up more than twice the number of drug offenders than in 2000. More people are now sent to our prisons for drug crimes than all violent offenses combined!
One practice driving this trend is prosecutors wrongly applying the “repetitive offender” statute to first-time offenders. The law was intended to get career criminals off the streets by giving out longer sentences to offenders who had a prior conviction.
However, Arizona prosecutors are using the “repetitive offender” law even if the defendant has never been convicted of a crime. How does that happen? The prosecutors “stack” charges so that the offender is made to look like a career criminal.
Here’s how stacking works: A son takes his mother’s car joyriding three times in a week. In Arizona, he can be charged as a “repetitive offender” even though he has never been to court before. When that happens, he’s not eligible for probation or community supervision. The law requires that he go to prison and will be behind bars for much longer then a first-time offender normally would.
Almost no other state allows this charging practice because it unfairly applies the harshest punishments to people who have no prior conviction. In Arizona, however, it’s perfectly legal.
Prisons are for people we fear, not folks we are just mad at. But that’s just what stacking does – it results in over-incarceration of people convicted of non-violent crimes. And that creates its own set of problems beyond cost.
When the system locks up non-violent criminals with rapists and murderers, which group will come out looking more like the other? The answer is obvious. The last thing Arizona needs is for its prisons to release people who are more dangerous than when they went in.
Pat Nolan is a former Republican leader of the California Assembly who President Trump pardoned on May 15, 2019. He has been a vocal advocate for criminal justice reform since he spent two years in federal prison for a conviction in the “Shrimpscam” FBI sting in the 1990s. David Safavian is general counsel of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.