PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey is going to ask lawmakers to do something that generally sends most Republicans scurrying for cover: consider whether everyone the state is sending to prison actually belongs there.
In an interview with Capitol Media Services ahead of Monday’s State of the State address, the governor said that many of the state’s mandatory sentencing laws were put in place at a time when crime was a top priority.
Now, he said, crime rates are down. Yet the state’s inmate population is burgeoning, to the point where Arizona does not have the cash to build the prisons quickly enough to house all the new inmates. So the state has entered into contracts with private firms to construct and operate the facilities.
Consider: At the end of the 2006 fiscal year, there were 34,797 inmates behind bars. As of this past Friday — halfway through this fiscal year — that figure is 42,566, including more than 6,400 housed in private prisons at state expense.
Looking at it another way, the state’s prison population in the same period has increased more than twice the rate of the 10.5 percent increase in Arizona’s overall population.
Ducey suggested that trend is not sustainable.
“I think if you’re serious about reversing the direction in terms of prison population, you need to look at how we’re handling some of these issues,” he said.
Other issues the governor is likely to address when he gives his speech include:
- Fulfilling the commitment he made during the 2014 campaign to submit legislation to reduce taxes every year, “with the goal of pushing income tax rates as close to zero as possible.” He said that will help make Arizona more attractive for people and businesses fleeing “failing states.”
- Adding more dollars to the state university system. Ducey acknowledged a series of budget cuts, including a $99 million hit he approved last year, saying, “You’ll see the trend change.”
- Finding ways to reduce the more than 200 boards and commissions that regulate everything from contractors and doctors to barbers and cosmetologists. Ducey said he believes some state regulations were put into place by “special interests” who want to keep others out.
- Pushing for more accountability in education to ensure state dollars are going where they are needed and are effective. But it remains unclear whether the governor will propose additional dollars beyond those he hopes voters will approve when they vote on Proposition 123 later this year.
Ducey said he has been weighing the issue of prison reform for some time.
The governor said when people were questioned in the 1970s about what they considered to be the top issues, crime would usually wind up at or near the top.
“So, in an effort to be tough on crime, there were a lot of decisions made,” Ducey said. That included adoption of a new criminal code in 1978. And in 1994, lawmakers approved “truth-in-sentencing” laws designed to both limit the discretion of judges in sentencing as well as ensure that inmates were serving at least some percentage of the terms to which they were sentenced.
Now, said Ducey, murder, assault and grand larceny rates are at “all-time lows.”
“These are good things that provide a high-quality life for us here in Arizona,” the governor said. “At the same time, our prisons are expensive.”
Ducey said he’s thought a lot about the question of who the state locks up — and who belongs behind bars.
“There are people that we are scared of that belong in prison,” he said. “There are also people we are mad at that may not belong in prison.”
And that, Ducey said, requires a close look at differentiating between the two groups.
“Something we want to look at is not only how we get the bad guys in terms of drug cartels and human trafficking, but then how we deal with people that have been affected by addiction and how that affects our prison population,” he said.
Ducey said the question of whether addicts belong behind bars goes beyond who is sentenced to prison in the first place.
“What I’m talking about there is, after someone is released from prison and they go on parole, oftentimes they can find themselves back in prison due to technical violations,” he said. “So how do we deal with those people, especially if it’s a result of addiction, so that we’re not taking someone we’re mad at and turning them into someone we’re scared of?”
Ducey said he’s thought a lot about the whole issue of criminal justice.
For example, the governor said when he’s interviewing people who want to be judges, he often asks them what they think is the most important part of the Constitution.
“There’s no really right answer,” Ducey said. “I just want to know if someone thought about it.”
One answer that surprised him was an applicant citing the Sixth Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights that guarantees the right to trial by jury. That left an impression.
“Here’s the power of the state to arrest someone, to prosecute someone, to imprison someone, to take away their liberty, and in some cases, their life,” Ducey said. “And yet we bring 12 citizens and we let them make the decision if they’re guilty or not.”
Ducey’s foray into the area of prison reform has political risks.
As far back as 2003, Rep. Bill Konopnicki, R-Safford, worked for years to revisit the sentencing structure, saying the state could not afford the burgeoning costs of its prison system. That included reclassifying some crimes now considered felonies to be misdemeanors to a total rewrite of the sentencing code.
That incurred the wrath of fellow Republicans, to the point where then-Sen. Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, used his position as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee to ensure that such measures did not even get a hearing.
Rep. Cecil Ash, R-Mesa, had no better luck with his own special legislative committee, which also looked at sentencing reform.
Prosecutors successfully blocked those from becoming law.