Arizona, like many other states, is faced with the need to address criminal justice reform by reducing recidivism and improving post release reintegration. The Department of Corrections, which is really the tail end of the snake, is only one component of a criminal justice process that includes the police, the courts and judges, county prosecutors, the defense bar, service organizations, probation officers and the clemency board. Reform is needed in each of these segments.
The Department of Corrections has a budget of more than $1 billion tax dollars and is presently in need of a new director. This provides an opportunity for new leadership and direction that could influence our justice system in meaningful and constructive ways. Whomever is chosen to lead this gargantuan bureaucracy must have a significant grasp of organizational and human complexities and address such things as the woefully inadequate medical care available to prisoners, improving the current crisis in staff morale, recruitment, training of sufficient professional staff, including those who teach, heal and treat individuals who have identifiable deficiencies in navigating the social world. The new director must be willing to insist that the Legislature fund physical plant improvements that have created a security crisis of unprecedented proportions.
Altering the ultimate focus of the department from warehousing to successful and permanent reintegration of criminal offenders will require a dedicated correctional-oriented professional who cannot be a pawn to political interests and who understands what must be done for Arizona and how to do it. I have been an advocate for prison and criminal justice reform since 1981, when Ellis MacDougal was director. Subsequently, through Directors James Ricketts, Samuel Lewis, Terry Stewart, Dora Schriro and Charles Ryan I have observed a strong tendency to “keep the lid on” the prisons, avoiding riots and escapes, but not really devoting sufficient energy or funding to implement best-practice correctional and rehabilitation services. The new director must be proactive on all fronts.
As advocates, we must address not just sentencing reform, but expansion of judicial discretion, limits on the arbitrary power and scope of the prosecutorial function, dealing with the issues of mental illness and the lack of associated community resources, increasing diversion programs while simultaneously expanding substance abuse treatment, and increasing earned release credits for those offenders representing the least risk to public safety. Reforms must be comprehensive, but need not be radical. Reforms must include opportunity for input from victims and provide victim-centered opportunities for healing, as well as redemption for offenders. The director of the prison system can play a large role in this endeavor.
Legislators need to recognize and accept that when we send a person to prison, we accept full responsibility for the medical, dental, optical and other physical needs of the prisoner as a matter of well-established constitutional law. These obligations must be met in a timely, professional and effective manner. The mentally ill, arguably some of whom should not be incarcerated at all, impose a difficult burden on any prison system, which is neither designed for nor capable of adequately treating this vulnerable population.
The outsourcing of prisoner medical care to private contractors has been problematic at best and currently is the subject of lengthy class action litigation that has cost our taxpayers millions of dollars, not to improve the system or its services, but to pay lawyers for both sides.
Even well-intentioned prisoners who’ve attempted to take advantage of every resource available to improve themselves while incarcerated are faced, upon release, with nearly insurmountable collateral consequences in obtaining housing, employment, licenses, transportation, and fitting back into their communities, without adequate assistance or resources to enable them to live among us without recourse to crime. The long-standing failure to adequately address these many problems in a comprehensive and coordinated manner has led to the current situation. If we wanted to design and fund a “system” that fails on nearly every level, we have it with our current system.
The new prison director can lead the way to a more effective system, but there will still be much to be done by the rest of us.
— Donna Leone Hamm is director of Middle Ground Prison Reform.