Arizona is ready for meaningful criminal justice reform

Policy leaders from across the country met in Arizona today to discuss whether Arizona needs to consider sentencing reform. Representatives of organizations with very different political view came together with a shared commitment to both safe and strong neighborhoods, and smaller numbers of people behind bars.

Arizona is ripe for reform. Arizona has the tenth largest prison population in the country, the sixth highest imprisonment rate, and the third highest rate of prison growth between 2003 and 2013 – a 32 percent increase in population size. Also, the private prison industry has expanded and holds 400 percent more people in Arizona prisons today than it did in 1999.

This explosion in Arizona’s incarceration rates has translated to greater expense, not safer communities. Nationwide, violent crime is down 48 percent since 1994; Arizona has only seen a 41 percent decrease. Correctional spending has tripled since 1994, but the money has gone primarily to lock up more people for longer periods of time rather than rehabilitation and reentry support that lower the risk of recidivism.

This spending is unsustainable if not missing the point of governance altogether. As Arizona adds another 2,500 beds to an already varicose prison system, the state prattles and battles over school funding. Reams of data, and well established studies not only point to education as the most effective crime prevention measure, but the mere concept of abandoning youthful erudite reform to the gates of prison is counterintuitive.  For the last decade, the Arizona corrections budget grew nearly three times as fast as investment in K-12 schools.  As Arizona establishes serious public policy reform about building safe and strong communities, these priorities will take center stage if we are to deal with reform in an earnest way.

The good news is that Arizona already knows there are smarter strategies for preventing and reducing crime than warehousing people for longer and longer periods at increased taxpayer expense. For example, starting in 2011, Maricopa County officials faced the reality that more than 50 percent of the county budget was being spent on criminal justice and defense, and repeat offenders were a big part of that cost. Using evidence-based approaches, they assessed the risk level of those in jail to help focus resources; created programming to address destructive thinking patterns that correlate to increased risk of criminal behavior; enhanced substance abuse initiatives; addressed the additional social costs that frequently accompany incarceration of women; and re-designed mental health services so that treatment continues after prison.

Pima County has also made great strides in reforming their criminal justice system. Allowing people accused of drug offenses to go to treatment instead of jail, and establishing specialty courts to provide non-jail alternatives for other low-level crimes, helped win them a MacArthur Foundation grant to study additional opportunities to reduce jail use and deliver better public safety outcomes for their communities. Make no mistake none of these approaches to reform are grounded in a “soft on crime” mentality. They are based on data, both crime statistics and fiscal, that provides a pathway that ensures those requiring incarceration remain where they belong while those currently unnecessarily warehoused at unsustainable cost are held responsible for their misdeeds in a manner increases rather than decreases their future ability to be responsible to our communities.

When we think about what a smarter justice system would look like, it’s important to keep in mind that 95 percent of people in prison will be released back into our communities. Long sentences behind bars combined with no meaningful treatment or rehabilitation services and little to no reentry support is a recipe for failure. Failure means more crime in our neighborhoods. Sentences should be tailored to the needs of the individual and should balance accountability with behavior change and reintegration into society. When individuals can safely be held accountable in the community, working to make restitution to their victims while participating in rehabilitative programming, they should be. This is better for their prospects of staying crime-free and better for Arizona.

Nationwide, the United States is engaged in a bipartisan conversation about the size and performance of our criminal justice system. Leaders across the political spectrum are questioning why America leads the world in putting people behind bars while its schools struggle and the mentally ill and drug addicted are unable to access treatment. Now is the time for Arizona to join the discussion and capitalize on opportunities to expand sentencing reforms to redirect scarce public resources away from wasteful overuse of prison and jail and toward proven strategies for building strong, safe communities.

-Kurt M. Altman, PLC, is a former state and federal prosecutor and Alison Holcomb is director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.

This story was originally posted on the Arizona Capitol Times website.