Criminal justice reform is a frequent topic of conversation in Arizona, and for good reason. Over the past few decades, Arizona policymakers have been too quick to turn to the criminal law to deal with a wide range of social problems. And this has produced a crisis of mass incarceration. Consider just a few data points:
Arizona’s overreliance on incarceration is expensive, sure, but it’s also morally problematic. The state’s criminal justice policies have destroyed the lives of countless individuals, families, and communities. And the costs of incarceration are not borne equally. Instead, they’re concentrated in racially disparate ways and focused on the state’s most vulnerable populations.
How did this happen? Well, there are a number of complicated answers, but there’s also a pretty simple one that tells us most of what we need to know. And that’s government decisions. Think of it this way: Arizona wouldn’t be in this mess if it weren’t for policy choices by state and local officials about what to criminalize, how to police, who to sentence, and how to treat those we imprison. These decisions weren’t always produced by a careful weighing of costs and benefits. They were rarely connected to scholarly research. And all too often were they shaped by a tough on crime politics that considers more punishment to be the right response to just about any societal problem.
But here’s the good news: if misguided decisions got us here, then better decisions can lead us out. And better information is an important part of that. Or at least that’s the idea behind Reforming Arizona Criminal Justice, which is a collaborative project from the Academy for Justice and the Arizona State Law Journal. We assembled a group of the nation’s leading criminal law scholars to write accessible articles on some of the state’s most pressing criminal justice problems. Each of these papers offers an intimate look into Arizona criminal law, provides an overview of relevant academic research, and proposes concrete, evidence-based solutions. The result is a readable collection of interesting ideas about criminal justice reform—and a usable guide for anyone interested in making better criminal justice decisions in Arizona.
Michael Serota is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, an Associate Deputy Director of the Academy for Justice, and the Director of the Criminal Justice Reform Lab.