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We spend $1B on prisons – why aren’t we safer?

(Shutterstock)

(Shutterstock)

I live in Prescott, and I am very conservative. I am stingy about government spending. I want to get more bang for every taxpayer dollar. I want to make Arizona families stronger. I want dangerous criminals off the streets and in prison. Using this criteria, Arizona’s criminal justice system fails us on all three counts.  

Our prisons house more than 12 times the number of inmates they held 40 years ago. That is three times the growth rate of prisons across the country. That puts Arizona as the fifth highest imprisonment rate in the US.  

The criminal justice bureaucracy tells us that all of these prisoners are violent and dangerous – “the worst of the worst.” But I did some research, and that is just not true.   

The number of people in Arizona prisons for non-violent crimes has more than doubled since 2000. Arizona sends more people to prison for drug crimes than all violent offenses combined! That makes no sense. Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we are filling ours with folks we are just mad at.  

Not only do these policies waste taxpayers’ money, they also make our communities more dangerous. Ask yourself: when we lock up non-violent offenders with rapists and murderers, which group will come out more like the other?  

When we incarcerate low level, non-violent offenders, many of their families are left without a breadwinner. Many of them end up on welfare. There are better ways to hold these low-risk offenders accountable that don’t take them away from their families.   

Pat Nolan

Pat Nolan

It makes no sense pouring billions of dollars into a system that leaves victims’ needs unmet, offenders unchanged, and communities living in fear. Arizona can look to two nearby conservative states that have adopted reforms that reserve costly bed space for violent offenders, while putting some of the savings into programs that prepare the inmates to be responsible parents, valued employees, good neighbors – and taxpayers!  

In 2007, “Tough-on-Crime” Texas decided they couldn’t afford to build more prisons. So, they studied how they could keep the public safe without building new prisons. They developed reforms that reserved costly prison beds for dangerous offenders. They put some of the money they saved into drug courts, expanded drug treatment, and mental health services. The reforms were so successful that Texas has been able to close ten prisons and saved more than $3 billion. And even more impressive, Texas’ crime rate dropped to the lowest level since 1967!  

In 2015, Utah followed the example of Texas and reclassified some drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and made a priority of preparing inmates to return to their communities successfully. As a result, data from Utah’s Department of Safety shows the crime rate has dropped 23% since the reforms have been implemented.  

In sum, the people of the states of Texas and Utah are safer, there are fewer people in prison, and the cost of their prisons have been cut dramatically. That is a conservative’s dream: less crime, more government savings, and offenders prepared to be good neighbors.  

In the last decade, 32 states have successfully reduced both crime and imprisonment by using prison beds for violent criminals, while putting the savings into programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism. Most important, violent crime in these 32 states has dropped at double the rate it has in Arizona.  

While states across the country are benefiting from less crime, lower recidivism, and greater tax savings, Arizona stubbornly sticks to outdated, failed, and expensive policies. Our legislators have voted down every attempt to adopt reforms that have been so successful in other states. I am baffled that our legislators have not followed the lead of other states. 

However, there is good news. Arizona has a chance to get with the program and adopt reforms similar to other conservative states. SB1064, sponsored by Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, would allow inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses to earn time off their sentences if they are participating in rehabilitative programming and are following the rules.  

 And there are some commonsense requirements in SB1064:  

  1. No prisoner sentenced for a serious or violent offense or a dangerous crime against children is eligible for early release.
  2.  Victims must be notified of the possible release of the person that harmed them. 
  3.   Inmates that are functionally illiterate will be enrolled in literacy programs and given standardized assessments before the earliest eligible date of release.  
  4.  Inmates must participate in programs that prepare them for reentering society such as: skills-based work programssubstance abuse treatmentclasses on how to be a good parentanger management; and earn an occupational license or certificate. 

It’s time for Arizona to get smart on crime and join other conservative states by adopting the reforms in SB1064. 

Pat Nolan is the founder of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Nolan Center for Justice. He was Republican leader of the California State Assembly. 

2 comments

  1. Great opinion piece, but this is AZ – you’re expecting too much from stupid and incompetent legislators that the people keep electing. Educate the voters and maybe this state will finally get with the program and follow data and science. Imagine that!

  2. Good article, especially coming from a “conservative”, but it only scratches the surface of needed changes. We need to look deeper into the structure of our society to find answers to the question: “We spend $1B on prisons – why aren’t we safer?” We need to look at laws not as some devices for moral imperative, or even public safety, but as the instruments of social order that they are. It is not by accident that some groups are over-represented in prison. Our social order says that it is more harmful to society for a man to rob a convenience market, or take drugs, than it is to steal $millions from retirees by violating financing laws. It is more harmful to take drugs than to wrongfully imprison people because of skin color. Our system does not work because it has succeeded in an evil and immoral endeavor. Each of us that votes should take a hard look at the laws we have created.

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