Arizona Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, recently introduced a bill that would allow nonviolent offenders to be eligible for a reduced sentence if they participate in a rehabilitation program while incarcerated. It’s a step in the right direction, but one that needs to be expanded.
The United States currently has the largest prison population in the world and the highest incarceration rate. According to a recent report by FWD.us, despite some reform measures, Arizona still has the fourth-highest imprisonment rate in the country and spends $1.1 billion on its prison system each year. So while crime in Arizona decreases, incarceration increases and taxpayers foot the bill. Something is off. Key to resolving this state-wide issue is stronger rehabilitation and re-entry programs and the abolishment of Arizona’s Truth in Sentencing Law.
Truth in Sentencing reduces the possibility of early release from incarceration. It requires individuals who are incarcerated to serve a substantial portion of the prison sentence before being eligible for release. Arizona is only one of three states that retains this outdated statute. The adoption of this law stems from America’s failed “tough on crime” approach in the 1990s.
In 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act created the Violent Offender Incarceration and Truth-in-Sentencing grant programs to encourage states to increase the use of incarceration and ensure that violent offenders served a substantial portion of their sentences. Today, Arizona requires everyone – violent and non-violent — to serve a minimum of 85 percent of their sentences, without opportunities to earn time off for good behavior or participation in rehabilitative programs
Important to note is that Arizona has not become more violent or dangerous in the last two decades. In fact, according to a FWD.us, property and violent crimes decreased in the state by 44 percent and 12 percent since 2000, yet the state’s prison population grew twice as fast as the state’s general population during the same time.
Perhaps most striking is that the number of people sentenced to prison for drug offenses in Arizona has grown faster than any other type of crime. Imprisonment for drug possession between fiscal years 2000 and 2017 jumped 142 percent. Instead of choosing rehabilitation, treatment, probation, or other alternatives, Arizona laws required the state to hand out prison sentences without the option of parole, thanks to Truth in Sentencing. This means the social and economic strain of incarceration will continue in Arizona for years to come. (FWD.us noted that Arizona keeps people in prison, depending on the crime, anywhere from 25 to 100 percent longer than the national averages.)
The current system in Arizona doesn’t benefit anyone. A state that embraces empathy first and removes outdated measures like Truth in Sentencing is much better positioned to reduce prison rates and cut crime. Studies show that 32 other states have done exactly this by choosing community service programs, mentorship opportunities, mental health service, drug rehabilitation, and prison-to-workforce programs. But Arizona needs to act swiftly.
Arizona’s incarceration epidemic is often described as “in crisis,” “severe,” and “an outlier.” This doesn’t have to be the reality. It’s time to treat the state’s incarceration problem like the emergency it is, embrace Rep. Blackman’s proposed new bill and abolish antiquated measures like Truth in Sentencing.
Michelle Cirocco is a criminal justice reform advocate and Chief Social Impact Officer for Televerde (www.televerde.com), an integrated sales and marketing technology organization based in Phoenix, Arizona.