A new study says drug arrests make up the single-largest category of offenses in Arizona’s prisons, with 21.3 percent of inmates having a drug crime as their highest charge.

Matt York / The Associated Press 2009

With the fifth-highest incarceration rate in the nation, Arizona is spending nearly $600,000 a day to house drug offenders in prison, according to a new study.

The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that works toward social justice and prison reform, found critical problems through its study “Drug Sentencing in Arizona: A Prescription for Failure,” which was released Thursday.

Because the state doesn’t collect aggregate data related to actual sentencing laws for any category of crime, the organization collaborated with the Public Welfare Foundation to collect court-level data on drug arrests, prosecutions and sentencing practices.

Researchers gathered data from court cases of people who were sentenced to prison for drug crimes in Maricopa, Pima and Yavapai counties from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2015.

The study determined that “incarceration as a response to drug addiction is a failed strategy” that researchers say is based on faulty logic and assumptions.

Drug arrests made up the single-largest category of offenses in the state’s prison system, with 21.3 percent of prisoners having a drug crime as their highest charge, the study showed.

The state is spending $588,655 per day to house people with a drug offense, averaging $24,229 per person, per year.

In addition to the fifth-highest incarceration rate in the country, Arizona also has a 49 percent recidivism rate, which shows that “the threat of a harsher sentence for a subsequent conviction does nothing to make people clean and sober,” the study says.

Although 75 percent of people in Arizona prisons were assessed by the Department of Corrections as having significant substance-abuse histories, only 1.7 percent of prisoners in December 2015 were receiving treatment.

“I think this is definitely a good start for us to understand the sentencing practices related to drug crimes, as well as patterns of arrests and the need for rehabilitation programs while incarcerated,” said Shi Yan, an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

The study also found evidence of racial disparities in sentencing in the state. African-Americans make up only 4.8 percent of the total general population, but make up 11.5 percent of the population of people who are arrested and 13.8 percent of the prison population.

“The sentence disparity isn’t very surprising, because research in multiple jurisdictions has found that there has been some unexplained disparity between the sentence received by African-Americans and white, and in this case, Hispanic defendants,” Yan said.

While the numbers are a good place to start, more research on the subject of racial disparity in sentencing is needed, since information about criminal records or severity of crimes wasn’t taken into consideration in this particular study, Yan said.

Arizona also has the fourth-highest female incarceration rate in the country, with 32 percent of female inmates serving time for drug offenses, the study said.

“It’s also interesting to see the sentence differences between those who pleaded guilty and those who were found guilty at trial,” Yan said. “The findings have been generally consistent with the existing research that there is a difference in sentence depending on the mode of conviction (whether the person was convicted at trial or pleaded guilty).”

The study showed that for people convicted of drug crimes, there was a 96 percent increase in time sentenced if the person went to trial, rather than accepted a plea.

Local drug arrests up

In a May meeting of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, Sharon Bronson asked the justice and law enforcement agencies to provide assessments of what’s driving the “ever-increasing” costs associated with the county’s criminal justice system.

Last month, Pima County Public Defender Joel Feinman sent a memo to the board citing data collected from Pima County Superior Court and the Tucson Police Department, which he says could potentially show that prosecution and incarceration of drug offenders is a “very large driver” of those escalating costs.

Between 2012 and 2016, the number of people arrested by TPD on felony drug charges increased by 30 percent, according to the memo.

“Pima County is arresting vastly more people for narcotics-related offenses than ever before,” Feinman wrote in the memo.

“While some of these offenses involve serious drug trafficking charges and large amounts of illegal drugs, most do not.”

The Public Defender’s Office recently began tracking the aggregate amount of drugs involved in each felony arrest, as well as the bond amounts the county attorney requests in each case.

For the week of June 26 through July 3, the County Attorney’s Office filed initial felony charges against 263 people.

Forty percent of those cases involved only narcotics offenses, Feinman wrote in the memo.

The office requested that 61 of the 105 drug offenders be held in jail on bond, and the median bond amount for the cases was $1,000, the memo said.

“The median aggregate drug amount involved in those 105 cases was 0.495 grams — half a sugar packet,” Feinman wrote in the memo.

Because the Public Defender’s Office hasn’t been tracking cases until recently, Feinman said it would take time to generate a larger sample size for the Board of Supervisors and county administrators to consider when implementing policy changes.

On Tuesday, the supervisors approved a $65,000 contract extension with The Primavera Foundation to implement enhancements to the Pima County Drug Court program and establish a drug treatment alternative ro prison program, funded by the county’s Behavioral Health Treatment Court.

Last April, the county received a $1.5 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to participate in the Safety and Justice Challenge, which aims to reduce the jail population by addressing misuse and overuse.

One of the components of the challenge is to screen people coming into jail for substance-abuse and mental-health issues and offer treatment alternatives to incarceration.

As changes are made, a community group is holding regular meetings to review data, monitor results and suggest changes to the strategies for the county to implement.

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at cschmidt@tucson.com or 573-4191. Twitter: @caitlinschmidt