Special to the Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 12.17.2009
This month, the Justice Department released its figures on prison populations in 2008. Arizona was among three states with the greatest increases in numbers of prisoners and also among the top five states in rate of incarceration.
Meanwhile, 20 states reduced their prison populations, through sensible reforms to sentencing policies and earned release programs.
Nationally, the rate of prison growth has declined markedly in this decade. Why? Among several factors, effectiveness and economy feature strongly.
Many states have determined that they simply cannot afford the "get tough" laws that incarcerate large numbers of people for long periods for largely nonviolent crimes. Nor have such lengthy sentences been proved to deter crime or improve rehabilitation.
In many states leaders from both ends of the political spectrum are coming together to make thoughtful changes to their criminal codes that help balance budgets while preserving, and even enhancing, public safety.
Programs such as drug courts which provide treatment and require offenders to change behavior and contribute to the community have demonstrated better results at far less cost than incarceration.
Arizona currently finds itself in a difficult position: Our prison population is exploding and we have a budget crisis. Corrections eats up nearly 10 percent of our general fund.
In budget-balancing proposals, education and social services are being gutted, special funds are being raided, and the Legislature and the governor still have not solved the problem. The state budget deficits are projected to continue into the next several years.
In the face of this dilemma, two diametrically opposed solutions have been proposed related to corrections.
Some legislators believe that privatization of our prison system is the answer. They want to sell prison buildings and hand over management of most of our state prison complexes to private, for-profit corporations.
This would include our women's prison, sex offender units, death row, and super-maximum security units.
No other state has ever engaged in such a widespread privatization experiment, and no private prison company has experience managing such diverse prisoner populations.
Even if private companies could run our prisons for less than the state (and there is no evidence to suggest they could), at our present rate of growth, corrections will continue to hemorrhage taxpayer dollars well into the future, no matter who's running the facilities.
A smarter option is to do what those other 20 states have done and reduce our prison population through safe, sensible sentencing reforms.
There are models from states like New York, Michigan and Kansas that show that these reforms can save states substantial amounts of money while reducing recidivism. Keeping low-level non-violent offenders in their communities where they can continue working, supporting their families and paying restitution benefits Arizona far more than warehousing people and then releasing them with no job skills or drug treatment.
Through technology, participants in structured early release programs can be effectively monitored. These and other reforms have a track record of success.
Wholesale prison privatization is a gamble that will likely only pay off for shareholders of private prison companies. Arizona taxpayers, where would you like your money to go?
E-mail Ann Weaver Nichols at firstname.lastname@example.org Ann Weaver Nichols is a retired professor from the Tucson Component of the Arizona State University School of Social Work.