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First-time offenders shouldn’t be treated as career criminals

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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!

Pat Nolan

Pat Nolan

David Safavian

David Safavian

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.

2 comments

  1. Prisons should be places for rehabilitation and education, not punishment. Obviously, some individuals need to be kept off the streets. It is ridiculous for first-time offenders to be given long sentences. Those using and selling drugs may need to go to prison, but not for years. We can greatly reduce the number of people in prisons with no problem to the greater society. Instead, we keep them in an environment where they just learn to be bad. Giving Arizona a strong education system and working towards rehabilitation for those in prison should be a priority.

  2. Robert Jennings

    In June 2010, undocumented immigrants represented 14.8 percent of Arizona state prisoners, but accounted for only 7 percent of the state’s overall population according to the Department of Homeland Security. The new data also revealed for the first time a breakdown of crimes for which undocumented immigrants were incarcerated. For example of all the prisoners serving time in Arizona state prisons for kidnapping, 40 percent were undocumented. Of those in prison on drug charges, 24 percent were undocumented. And 13 percent of those serving time for murder were undocumented immigrants, according to the new data from the Arizona Department of Corrections. I’m sure these figures are much higher today and will continue to grow larger until democrats start loving their country more than they hate President Trump.

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