Arizona is in the midst of an incarceration and public safety crisis. Despite having the fifth-highest incarceration rate in the nation and spending $1.1 billion per year on corrections, our state ended yet another legislative session without meaningful reform. And now Bill Montgomery, prosecutor for the largest county in Arizona and one of the state’s chief opponents to reform, is touting a couple of small diversion programs as a major achievement. While we applaud any efforts to address Arizona’s unsustainable prison use and spending, Montgomery’s claims are misleading and obscure the larger picture of why Arizona trails the nation in smart policies that improve public safety while reducing incarceration.
Our prison population hovers at around 42,000 people, but more and more we are filling prisons with first-time, nonviolent offenders. According to a report by FWD.US, since 2000 the number of people we send to prison for a first time felony conviction has tripled, and the number of people sent to prison for a non-violent offense has jumped 80 percent. In 2017, first-time felony convictions accounted for 41 percent of all prison admissions, two-thirds of which were for nonviolent offenses. Maricopa County, Mr. Montgomery’s jurisdiction, accounts for 62 percent of Arizona’s prison population and sends people to prison with the longest average sentence at nearly 5 years.
Meanwhile, Montgomery’s diversion programs only affect a fraction of the offenders he charges every year. Since its inception in 2015, Maricopa County’s pretrial diversion program for non-drug felony cases has had about 1000 participants and between 2015 and 2018 only 3,641 people were referred to the county’s two adult felony deferred prosecution programs. By contrast, his office sent more than 30,000 people to prison over that same period.
Montgomery also contrasts the low recidivism rate of his diversion program with those of people returning from prison. But his comparison is deceptive, since we already know that diversion should have better public safety outcomes than prison. In fact, sending people to prison for their first crime makes them more likely to commit a crime once released. As former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich once observed: “If you put non-violent and violent offenders in the same institution, which group will come out looking more like the other?”
Mr. Montgomery’s approach to public safety is exemplified by his opposition to reform this year. Although the legislature passed SB 1334 with a bipartisan majority, Montgomery pressured Governor Ducey into vetoing the bill. This policy sought to return greater discretion to judges and reserve prison space for more serious offenders by limiting prosecutorial charging power. But Montgomery’s obstructionist efforts in the face of strong legislative support prompted SB 1334’s Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Ben Toma, to openly question the honor of prosecutors.
The real question here is why Mr. Montgomery jeopardizes public safety by opposing common-sense reforms in the face of strong evidence that they can and do work. Many other conservative states have already demonstrated more cost-effective strategies for safely reducing prison populations. In 2017, Louisiana embraced smart justice reforms to address its status as the top incarcerator in the world. The state reduced the number of lower-level offenders it was sending to prison, strengthened diversion and community supervision programs, and improved re-entry strategies. Since passage of the reforms, the Pelican State has seen its prison population drop substantially while enjoying historically low crime rates.
And last year, with President Trump’s leadership, the federal government passed the historic First Step Act. As smart conservatives everywhere have recognized, the First Step Act is meant to reduce both prison populations and crime, and will bring evidence-based reform to a slowly dying government industry called our justice system. This federal reform has gone farther than Arizona ever has — in large part because of Montgomery’s opposition to even modest bipartisan reforms. If President Trump can embrace smart criminal justice reforms, Bill Montgomery should follow his lead in Arizona.
Mr. Montgomery’s most recent defense of programs that only touch on Arizona’s bloated prison system misses the point. With Arizona spending an average of $23,000 per prisoner, we know we can use taxpayer dollars far more effectively to reduce crime, save taxpayer dollars, and improve outcomes than Mr. Montgomery has proven willing to do.
Pat Nolan and David Safavian are director and deputy director respectively of the Nolan Center for Justice, a leading conservative voice on criminal reform.