Misinformation permeating the national debate concerning “mass incarceration” must be cleared up. The repeated and untrue statement that Arizona and Pima County lock up too many first-time, non-violent drug offenders, resulting in significantly increased incarceration rates, is simply not true. Recently, a letter to the editor erroneously repeated the “pot smokers filling our jails” myth.
During the 1980s crack-cocaine era, Congress passed stiff drug-sentencing laws requiring federal judges to hand down extremely lengthy sentences to drug offenders. Thousands of federal prisoners were sentenced to overwhelmingly punitive sentences. These harsh federal mandatory minimum laws disproportionately affected low-income and minority Americans and created a valid concern about mass incarceration. Arizona’s sentencing laws differ significantly from federal laws.
Arizona law prohibits judges from imposing prison for first- and second-time possessors of illegal drugs such as heroin, cocaine/crack and marijuana. Instead, they must be sentenced to probation and treatment. They cannot be sentenced to prison until after their third conviction. Narcotic diversion, Drug Court and the Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison, programs I developed, offer the rehabilitation and drug-treatment alternatives mandated by law to hundreds of defendants each year.
Violent and repetitive crimes are the main drivers of incarceration-rate increases in Arizona. Arizona inmates earned their incarceration by virtue of their serious criminal conduct. They are not persecuted casual drug users who pose no real threat to the rest of us, nor are they victims of aggressive prosecution, whom the public has erroneously and repeatedly been led to believe are filling up our state’s costly prison space.
You merely need to read “Prisoners in Arizona: A Profile of the Inmate Population” (azsentencing.org) to uncover the truth. This report provides a complete and accurate analysis of the offenses for which inmates are incarcerated, the sentences they are serving, their histories of felony violence, their prior criminal records and other material factors. The report shows that relatively few prisoners are locked up for drug offenses.
Who is really in our prisons? Who are we are locking up? It’s just whom you’d expect: murderers, rapists, armed robbers, child molesters, kidnappers, prohibited possessors, gang-bangers, drive-by-shooters, repeat career burglars, auto thieves, arsonists and narco-traffickers.
“Prisoners in Arizona” reveals that 95 percent of all Arizona inmates are there because they committed serious, violent crimes against a person or because they are habitual, repeat offenders. More than half of the prison population (65 percent) are both violent and repeat offenders. Only 7 percent of Arizona inmates are incarcerated for drug possession. Most of them plead their cases down from far more serious drug charges.
When discussing crime and incarceration, we must always remember the victims of crime. Prosecutors daily come face-to-face with the victims of supposedly harmless, non-violent, “victimless” drug or “non-violent” property crimes. If you believe drug dealing is a victimless crime, you’ve never talked to parents trying to keep their children away from drugs or drug dealers. You’ve never seen someone whose life has been ruined by cocaine, meth or heroin addiction. You’ve never encountered a family terrorized because the safety and sanctity of their home was invaded by burglars. There’s nothing non-violent or victimless about these crimes.
Violent, dangerous and seriously repetitive crimes are the primary reasons for incarceration. To state otherwise is false. To say prosecutors protect our citizens and communities is the truth. However, if you support making our drug-sentencing laws even less stringent, I encourage you to lobby your state legislators. As your Pima County attorney, I enforce the laws, not make them.