Cheap. Mean. Stuck.
That’s how national researchers Marie Gottschalk and Judy Greene describe the prison system in Arizona — one of the few states that has not adopted substantial reforms despite high rates of imprisonment, recidivism and the cycles of poverty often associated with incarceration.
Arizona locks up more residents per capita than any other Western state, at 589 per 100,000 residents, and trails only five Southern states for people imprisoned nationally. It’s one of three states that still requires inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentence — even for nonviolent crimes.
The state’s approach is at odds with a recent shift away from tough-on-crime models. In 2013, 35 states passed laws to change their sentencing laws, bolster alternatives to prison and help keep convicts from reoffending, the Vera Institute reports.
In Arizona, the Department of Corrections’ budget for the upcoming fiscal year tops $1 billion and makes up 11 percent of the state’s general fund. That’s an increase of 40 percent in seven years.
By comparison, spending on economic security in Arizona dropped 18 percent since the 2009 recession and spending on K-12 education dropped 12 percent, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee’s appropriations report says.
And prison growth here promises to continue, with 1,000 medium-security beds to be added by fiscal year 2017 at a cost of $24.2 million.
These beds will be needed to accommodate the growing number of Arizona inmates, says DOC spokesman Andrew Wilder. County jails will compete with private companies for the expansion projects, he says.
The state has 10 prisons and six private-contract facilities, with all but 75 of the current inmates from Arizona.
Prison reform advocates say since so many Arizona prisoners are there because of underlying issues of mental illness and addiction, they’d like to see expanded drug-treatment options, such as the Pima County Attorney’s Office Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison, and greater use of specialized courts to address issues like mental illness.
The state has tried some alternatives such as graduated sanctions for parole violations, day reporting centers where people on probation or parole receive training and treatment, and community-based centers where parolees can be temporarily housed instead of being sent back to prison.
But much more could be happening here, says Greene, a prison scholar with New York-based research organization Justice Strategies.
“Both legislators and court officials, over the years, have put better ideas forward,” she says, “but Arizona seems to be stuck.”
Exactly how — and when — to adopt such changes would need “considerable planning and forethought,” says Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. The governor would want to have a “very honest and transparent laying out of facts to Arizonans about exactly which prisoners would be let out of prison,” Scarpinato says.
“When we are hearing there is anticipated growth and need for more beds, the governor will not be letting prisoners out,” he says. “We view this as a public safety issue.”
Despite a prevailing belief that the best way to prevent crime is to put — and keep — offenders behind bars, recent studies find no correlation between incarceration and low crime rates.
“There’s a pretty strong consensus in criminology that we are well past the point of diminishing returns,” says Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project for the Pew Charitable Trusts.
In 2013, Arizona averaged 429 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 387 per 100,000 people, data from the FBI show. The state also had more property crimes, at 3,540 per 100,000 people compared to the national average of 2,800 per 100,000.
The states with the biggest declines in incarceration rates since 2000 — New Jersey, New York and California — have seen the most significant drops in crime, the Sentencing Project found. With less money going to prisons, those states are doing more to keep people from being sent back behind bars.
That’s a critical issue for Arizona, where 49 percent of prisoners have served time in the state before, DOC data show.
“If your recidivism rate is high, you don’t have public safety,” says Caroline Isaacs, program director for the American Friends Services Committee in Arizona, which advocates for criminal justice reform.
Also, putting more people in prison increases the likelihood that the cycle will continue. Children who grow up with an incarcerated parent are five to seven times more likely to end up in prison as adults, says the National Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents.
The United States’ highest-in-the-world incarceration rates began with soaring crime in the 1970s and the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s.
Lawmakers and politicians responded with mandatory minimum sentences, mostly for drug crimes, and “three strikes” laws that lock up offenders for life after their third conviction.
In 1994, Congress authorized incentive grants to build or expand prisons. To qualify, states had to keep people convicted of certain violent crimes in prison for 85 percent of their sentence. Some states, like Arizona, adopted that standard for all prisoners, not just those convicted of violent crimes — and it remains in place now, regardless of good behavior in prison.
If the idea is to deter would-be offenders and reoffenders, it doesn’t appear to have worked, the Vera Institute reports. Predetermined sentences limit judges from considering mitigating factors like an individual’s background, likelihood to reoffend and available alternatives.
“For all intents and purposes, we have taken away any incentives inmates might have to cooperate with prison officials” and participate in rehabilitation or educational programs that might have otherwise helped them earn early release, says Michael Polakowski, director of the Rombach Institute of Delinquency, Crime and Corrections at the University of Arizona.
Requiring long mandatory sentences also works against Arizona when it comes time for people to return to the community, says Kathy Waters, the state’s director for Adult Probation Services. Former prisoners whose lives lack structure or support tend to fail more quickly, Waters says, while those on community supervision stand a better chance.
Former Republican legislator Cecil Ash of Mesa says Arizona politicians are risk-averse and fearful of looking soft on crime. During his four years in the House, starting in 2009, Ash wrote nine bills attempting to reform Arizona’s prison system. None passed, and only one even made it to the floor.
“It was a frustrating experience,” says Ash, now a justice of the peace in Mesa. “Everyone always said, ‘This is a Democrat cause.’ It’s really not. Conservatives are all about fiscal responsibility.”
But he says prison reform is an easier sell today because so many states are doing it with proven success.
Researcher Greene wonders why Arizona doesn’t look at it as more of a fiscal issue.
“One of the things that also puzzles me about Arizona is that, yeah, it’s a tough state in a rush to get tougher and vying to be the toughest,” she says. “But it’s also home to some of the smartest, savviest fiscal conservatives in the country.”
Texas, by comparison, has changed its focus and saved money.
In 2007, legislators in that state were asked to spend $2 billion for up to 17,000 new prison beds. Since 1987, Texas had tripled its prison cells, from 50,000 up to 150,000, and the Legislature decided to look for cheaper and more effective alternatives, says Gelb, of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The state spent $241 million to hire more probation officers, boost drug courts, expand residential and outpatient treatment programs, and create pretrial diversion programs for offenders with mental illness and addiction issues.
The savings so far: $3 billion, Gelb says.
Former Arizona legislator Ethan Orr, a longtime advocate for improving prisoner job training and re-entry programs, would like to see Arizona follow some of these same trends.
“The goal is to prevent recidivism, not arbitrarily punish people,” Orr says. “No one wants to delve into this because there’s still the perception here that you want to be tough on crime.”
Contact reporter Patty Machelor at 806-7754 or email@example.com. Former Arizona Daily Star reporter Emily Bregel contributed to this story.