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Misguided criminal justice decisions got us here, better decisions can lead us out

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:

  • The United States is the world leader in incarceration: with only 5% of the world’s population, the nation houses around 25% of its prisoners. Arizona plays a pivotal role in securing America’s global status, with the 5th highest rate of incarceration in the nation.
  • Prison populations throughout the United States skyrocketed over the past few decades, increasing 400% from 1980 to 2017. During this same period, the prison population in Arizona grew by 1,200%, expanding from 3,456 in 1980 to 42,312 in 2017. (This far outstripped the state’s general population growth.)
  • Arizona’s prison population has continued to increase even as its crime rate has declined. For example, from 2000 to 2018, the Arizona prison population increased by 60%, while the property crime rate declined by 44% and the violent crime rate fell by 12%.
  • Using the national average for length of prison stay as a point of comparison, Arizona sentences for property crimes are 100% longer, sentences for drug offenses are 40% longer, and sentences for violent offenses are 25% longer.
Michael Serota

Michael Serota

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. 

One comment

  1. Is he joking? He wants legislators to sit down and read position papers to learn about the criminal justice system in general and the Arizona sentencing code in particular? Has he ever attended a legislative committee hearing where specific sentencing code discussions are held? The about of mis-information casually imparted is astounding and sends terror through the heart of anyone who actually does understand Arizona sentencing time computation, prison disciplinary matters which impact release eligibility dates, executive clemency policy and politics in general when considering how the sausage is actually made.

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