As Arizona’s violent- and property-crime rates fall, a group of more than 100 stakeholders are working to combat the state’s ever-growing prison population.

Between April and October, Arizona Town Hall held 17 forums across the state, inviting community members and employees of the local criminal justice system to meet and discuss ideas about what kind of changes need to be made to turn around the prison population trend.

Since 2000, Arizona’s prison population has increased 60 percent, compared to 6 percent nationally during the same period, according to a recent set of reports by lobbying group FWD.us.

Despite recent reforms to criminal justice systems in many states, Arizona still has the fourth-highest imprisonment rate in the country and spends $1.1 billion on its prison system each year, according to FWD.us.

Since 2000, Arizona’s property-crime rate has dropped 44 percent and the violent-crime rate is down 12 percent, yet the number of people sent to prison for nonviolent crimes has increased by 80 percent. The sharp rise in Arizona’s prison population can’t be explained by population growth or the nonexistent growth in crime, but rather policy decisions to send more people to prison for low-level offenses and keep those people in prison for longer than the national average, according to research by FWD.us.

While urban counties in Arizona send the most people to prison, rural counties use prison at a much higher rate. Graham County sends 46 people to prison each year for every 10,000 residents, compared to 20 for every 10,000 residents from urban Pima County, according to FWD.us.

The study also shows that people of color are disproportionately affected by Arizona’s criminal justice system. While Hispanics make up about a third of Arizona’s population, they make up almost 60 percent of the people sent to prison for marijuana possession and more than 80 percent sent to prison for marijuana distribution.

Blacks receive the longest sentencing averages across the board, and in drug-possession cases, blacks receive prison sentences that are 50 percent longer than whites, according to FWD.us.

The FWD.us report is the latest in a series of studies by nonprofit organizations into the problems facing Arizona’s criminal justice system.

POLICY REFORMS

Since 2017, California has approved 10 bills as part of an overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system.

While California’s Equity and Justice bill package focused much of its reform on children and teenagers, outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown also signed into law bills that would reduce drug-sentence enhancements, seal arrest records for those arrested in connection with but not convicted of a crime, and increased spending to help people wrongly convicted of a crime transition back into society.

California is not the only state taking action , with many other states having already passed laws and increased funding for alternatives to incarceration.

Participants at last weekend’s 111th Arizona Town Hall said they hope that their collaboration and efforts will help lawmakers understand the lasting damage of incarceration and implement changes to a system that many people believe is broken.

In Town Hall panels, it became clear that while problems exist in jurisdictions across the state, rural counties suffer from a serious lack of funding and resources for areas such as diversion and substance-abuse programs, which have been in existence for years in Pima and other larger counties.

The final report addressed several specific areas, including goals for Arizona’s criminal justice system, the impacts of substance abuse and mental illness, the criminal charging process, defendants awaiting trial, state sentencing laws, post-conviction but before completion of sentence and completion of sentence.

It also reinforces the need for a holistic approach to solve these problems, both in partnership and apart from the criminal justice system, said Deputy Pima County Attorney Amelia Cramer, who has been a participant of Arizona Town Halls for years.

“The consensus is that this holistic approach must include education, prevention and intervention services, including drug and alcohol treatment and mental-health services,” Cramer said, adding that the final report also makes some concrete suggestions about what can be done to improve the criminal justice system in Arizona to ensure that it address the root causes of crime.

These can include poverty, homelessness, generational family dynamic and racial, ethnic and gender bias.

Additionally, stakeholders recommended focusing on evidence-based, data-driven solutions, providing better funding and access to mental-health and addiction treatment, adding a mental or behavioral health response option to 911 calls, automatic restoration of voting rights to people who have successfully completed their sentences, offering case management for people re-entering society after completing a jail or prison sentence or probation, fully funding transition and re-entry programs, and establishing a statewide task force to determine best practices for diversion, problem-solving courts and re-entry programs.

Cramer pointed out that several of the recommendations have already been undertaken in Pima County and the city of Tucson, including the Pima County Attorney’s Office Juvenile, Misdemeanor and Felony Diversion programs, the Tucson City Prosecutor’s Misdemeanor Diversion programs, Problem-solving Courts in all Tucson and Pima County courts and re-entry projects to provide housing, transportation and case management that are being initiated by Pima County’s new Criminal Justice Reform Unit.

“The fact that the final report supports our progressive efforts in Pima County affirms that we are leading the way for the state, and that we are on the right track — though, of course, much more remains to be done,” Cramer said.

BUILDING CONSENSUS

More than 20 Tucson and Pima County residents attended the Town Hall, including representatives from the Pima County Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office and Superior Court, the Tucson City Court, Ajo Justice Court and more.

The American Friends Service Committee-Arizona, a Quaker organization that works toward social justice and prison reform, also sent several representatives, and the panels also included multiple people who had formerly been incarcerated.

The four panels included people with personal interests on all sides, including people who were formerly incarcerated, family members of prisoners and people who work within the system and arguably have a stake in the status quo, said AFSC-AZ program director Caroline Isaacs, adding that she doesn’t think a conversation among these types of participants would have been conceivable five or 10 years ago.

“I think this was evidence of a shifting of the balance of power,” Isaacs said of the discussions .

“It really reflects what we’re finding in public polling research, which is that the average Arizonan is much, much more in favor of significant reform to the criminal justice system than our elected officials think they are.

“I think for the final product to say things like we should review the 85 percent truth in sentencing requirement, to say that substance abuse should be treated like a public health problem rather than a criminal act, that’s evidence of a pretty significant shift in how the majority are thinking of these issues,” Isaacs said.

“What that may reflect is that you have to actually have a conversation with someone about things. It’s a very different thing for anyone to generalize a group of people and say ‘they’re wrong,’ but when you have to sit across the table from someone and listen to their justification and explain yours, that’s a totally different dynamic.”

Isaacs called the slow progress of criminal justice reform in Arizona a marathon, rather than a sprint, but said she’s pleased with the progress.

“This really is the culmination of years of very hard work that was not so fast and we didn’t see as many results,” she said.

“I’d like to think the message is getting through and the truth is resonating much more than the scare tactics.”

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

I'm a watchdog reporter covering local government, the University of Arizona and sports investigations.