This past year, my journey to be crowned and named Miss Maricopa County brought me some of the most fulfilling moments of my life. As I prepared for the Miss Maricopa County and Miss Arizona competitions, I had the opportunity to meet with and listen to the concerns of fellow Arizonans. These conversations drew my attention to a serious issue in our state: the imprisonment crisis. After winning my title last September, I decided to commit my year of service to advocating for a more equitable and effective justice system.
Arizona is the fifth highest incarceration state in the country and spends more than $1 billion a year to lock up tens of thousands of people, many of whom are subject to excessively long sentences compared to the national average. Our policies of being tough on crime have not made our communities any safer. Almost half of the people in prison have been there before, pointing to the failure of our system to deter crime. Instead of being “tough on crime,” it is time that we become “smart on crime.”
In the years I attended law school overseas, I studied how several European countries curbed their recidivism rates by helping inmates readjust to society. While European countries tend to emphasize rehabilitation and community treatment in their criminal justice systems, our prison system focuses on punishment and incarceration, often as a response to addiction, poverty, or mental illness. Within Maricopa County this past year, our prison system admitted nearly 9,000 new inmates. Many of those people are imprisoned for nonviolent, low-level offenses that in other countries and states would be addressed by focusing on the root cause of the problem, like substance abuse or mental illness.
On a recent visit to the Arizona Perryville Prison, I had the privilege to listen to incarcerated women tell their stories – their stories of hopes and fears after their release, stories of change and redemption, and their worries of not being accepted back into society. I could not see these women as “criminals” but as humans who struggled with addiction or mental illness. They want to return to their families and contribute to their communities, but we don’t provide them with much help. One woman told me she was dropped off after release with no resources or prospects and $50 in her pocket. Unsurprisingly, she eventually returned to prison.
Studies have shown that even short periods of incarceration can cause irreversible harm to individuals, preventing people from maintaining employment and housing, fulfilling child care responsibilities, or receiving treatment. The majority of the 42,000 people currently incarcerated will, at some point, be released. However, given that our current prison system fails to help them reintegrate into society, too many of them will end up back behind bars.
Arizonans, we deserve better.
We need to focus our criminal justice systems more on rehabilitation and less on punishment. Ultimately, this is not about being “soft on crime” but about smart justice reform that will encourage people to readjust to society and break the cycle of crime. As Miss Maricopa County, it is my hope that we can remember the humanity of citizens behind bars and create policies that reflect our belief in redemption.
— Laetitia Hua is a Phoenix lawyer and reigning Miss Maricopa County.