Dec. 23, 2009Bill Hart, Senior Policy Analyst
Another fine mess. That’s one way of describing Arizona’s overcrowded, billion-dollar prison system, so many of whose graduates — apparently uncorrected — go on to commit more crimes. “Train wreck” is another useful phrase. But it’s worth keeping in mind the one thing Arizona’s prison crisis is not: It’s not a mystery.
Nor is its solution.
Consider the twin basics of Arizona’s prison policy over the past 30 years: First, pass a bunch of laws requiring lots more convicted criminals to be sent to prison (e.g., mandatory minimum sentences); second, pass other laws making most prisoners stay inside longer (e.g. “truth-in-sentencing”).
What did we think would happen?
Arizona for years has ranked among the top 10 states in its incarceration rate, measured as the number of people locked up per 100,000 state residents. Meanwhile, in the past 30 years corrections has run up a larger percentage increase in operating spending than any other Arizona agency. Since just fiscal year 2004 we have added more than 11,000 inmates at a cost of more than $400 million.
Why the rush to lock everybody up? Some say Arizonans simply have a lust for punishment. Fans of incarceration, however, are quick to point out that crime in Arizona has declined since the 1990s. They are less quick to note that America’s leading criminal justice scholars do not agree that incarceration deserves all or even most of the credit for the crime drop. Or that crime has gone down in both states with harsher justice systems and those with milder ones. Or that Arizona continues to hold down first place among states in the rate of property crime as measured by the FBI.
In any case, we’re left with two unpleasant alternatives: Either let substantial numbers of prisoners out early, or continue to struggle through the budget mess hobbled by this billion-dollar ball and chain.
Like it or not, it’s time to open the gates.
What about the nightmare of wanton violence that opponents warn of? Most inmates in Arizona prisons are locked up for non-violent crimes (though they might be repetitive offenders). Their most common offense by far is drug crimes, which accounted for 8,388 inmates in November, or about one-fifth of all prisoners. Next in frequency come the expected categories: assault (4,976), robbery (3,485), burglary (2,959), and murder (2,606). Then, however, comes aggravated DUI, which requires 2,188 prisoners to serve a total of four months behind bars.
Which raises another question: Why are we going to all the trouble and expense of sending thousands of drunk drivers to prison (as opposed to jail or home arrest) for only four months?
In fact, 39% of the total FY2008 inmate population was locked up for less than six months. Most of these are convicts who were granted probation or parole — that is, they were deemed low-risk enough to remain free or be released. Many of most were then locked up for “technical” violations, meaning they didn’t commit a new crime but perhaps missed a meeting with their probation officer or otherwise broke the rules.
It’s hard to see how releasing some of them early — and diverting many more incoming inmates to probation or jail — would pose a threat to the survival of civilization. It’s easier to see the upside: Keeping an inmate in an Arizona prison for a year averages out to around $22,000. Keeping someone on probation for a year runs slightly more than $1,000.
No mystery here.