In fact, every effort made to implement diversion programs for certain populations (like drug addiction) or evidence-based sentencing cuts into their profits, as the evidence shows that mass incarceration is not the answer to our social ills. In essence, the private prison industry is invested in perpetuating crime and punishment, not reducing victimization. I believe that the primary reason that the AZ Department of Corrections still hasn't completed their mandatory study on the costs and effectiveness of prison privatization is because the research will show that the only parties who benefit are corporations and the legislators they own - not the state or the people. That also translates into corporate and legislative resistance to expanding health care coverage for the poor, investments in community-based treatment options for the addicted, and meaningful efforts to address things like poverty, unemployment, and high school drop-out rates in our communities.
For those convinced that crime can only be stemmed by mass incarceration, please check out INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence for more information on how the prison industrial complex perpetuates societal violence and what can be done about it.
Push for more private-prison beds concerns someFor two years, Arizona's Department of Corrections has been trying to award a contract for 5,000 more private-prison beds.
Last year, the department canceled an initial round of bidding so it could beef up security requirements after three inmates escaped from a privately run prison.
Last month, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge removed the latest obstacle, dismissing a lawsuit by a prison-watchdog group seeking to block the contract award.
State auditors estimate that the beds would cost $585 million over the next five years.
"The fact we're moving forward with this outdated plan is mind-boggling to me," said Democratic state Rep. Chad Campbell, the House minority leader.
Before moving forward, he said, "we need a comprehensive review of the prison system and especially the private prisons and the need for any more private prisons in this state."
When the contracts were first proposed in the fall of 2009, the state's prisons were rapidly approaching capacity. For decades, the number of inmates in the state prison system had grown at a far faster rate than the state's population, peaking at 40,778 inmates that October.
But over the two years since that peak, the state's prison population has fallen 1.6 percent, to 40,116 as of Oct. 31.
Corrections Department officials, who say the extra beds will help ease crowding, project an additional 3,800 inmates by June 2015. Spokesman Barrett Marson said the department uses several data sources and methods to make prison population-growth projections. These include historical growth, county jail data, court filings, bookings and demographic data. Marson said the department also looks at less predictable factors such as possible changes in the economy, pending legislative action and changes in funding or policy within the criminal-justice system.
But the reasons behind the recent decline raise questions over whether the prison population will reach the state's projections.
Reasons behind decline
In its fiscal 2011 information report, the Corrections Department cited three factors for the recent drop in prisoners:
- Fewer convicts are coming in through the Maricopa County jails. The number of people awaiting trial in Maricopa County jails on felony charges has dropped 19 percent over the past two years. As Arizona's most populous county, Maricopa accounts for two-thirds of convicts flowing into the state's prisons.
When or whether the numbers of convictions and felons may rise again is uncertain. Crime-rate trends do not necessarily correlate with conviction rates, criminologists say, meaning one can't be predicted from the other. Over the past decade, the number of felony cases filed in Maricopa County climbed 90 percent even as crime rates fell by a third.
Court administrators don't make projections of criminal-charge or conviction rates, said Karen Arra, Maricopa County Superior Court spokeswoman.
- Fewer convicts are being sent back to prison for violating probation. Across the state, probation programs have significantly cut the number of convicts who have their probations revoked for technical violations. While some changes in probation have been in the works for nearly a decade, the big recent impetus for this drop in revocations seems to have been the 2008 "Safe Communities Act." Under that act, the state promised to kick back to the counties 40 percent of any money saved if they could reduce revocations by sending people back to prison only for substantial violations. Even though the Legislature didn't wind up providing the promised funds, and later canceled the program, counties have managed to cut revocations by more than 40 percent over the past three years, sending 1,328 fewer probationers back to prison in the fiscal year that ended June 30 than three years earlier.
Kathy Waters, the director of adult probation services for the Arizona Supreme Court, said she expects a further drop in probation revocations this year and next.
- Fewer non-citizens are in state prisons. The number of what the Corrections Department calls "criminal aliens," or non-citizens, sent to state prisons has fallen by more than a third over the past two years. There were 942 fewer non-citizens in state prisons at the end of last month than at the end of October 2009.
Corrections officials could not provide a breakdown of those who had been in the country legally versus without documentation at the time of their arrest; legal residents can lose their residency status when they are convicted of a crime.
The decline in non-citizens in the prison system coincides with the statewide drop in undocumented immigrants.
The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration Statistics estimates that the number of undocumented immigrants in Arizona has fallen by roughly 100,000 over the past three years. Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, said that while tougher immigration enforcement is having an impact, it's Arizona's sluggish economy, and the lack of jobs, that is the biggest factor.
History suggests that as long as the economy remains weak, immigrant numbers are unlikely to rebound, Passel said.
Preparing for the future
Even if the prison population were not to rise in the coming years, Corrections Director Charles Ryan has said that his department could use additional beds.
The department wants to replace the 5,266 temporary beds now counted in the prison system's housing capacity. Many of these temporary beds - extra bunks squeezed into dormitories or second beds crammed into cells meant to hold one prisoner - have been in use for decades.
However, the population decline means that 1,666 of those temporary beds were empty as of Monday.
And some lawmakers, such as Campbell, have called for putting the contracts on hold, saying it isn't in the state's best interest to expand Arizona's private prisons now.
Under its current plan, Corrections would bring the 5,000 contract beds on in phases, beginning with 2,000 by the end of April 2013 and the remaining beds by mid-2015.
It is unclear when the department plans to award any contract. Corrections officials say they expect to complete, by January, the first of the studies that were the subject of the lawsuit dismissed last month.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Arthur Anderson ruled that the prison-watchdog group, the American Friends Service Committee, lacked legal standing to sue the state. The committee tried to block any contract award until Corrections complies with a state law requiring biannual studies that compare the quality of services and the costs of private prisons to those run by the department.
Caroline Isaacs, the Arizona program director for the group, said the committee will consider legal action.
As The Republic first reported in August, Corrections has never conducted the studies, which are supposed to analyze costs, the security and safety of each prison, how inmates are managed and controlled, inmate discipline, programs, health and food services, staff training, administration and other factors as compared with state facilities.
The department, which previously had said it would award the contracts after Sept. 16, has asked the four finalists - Corrections Corp. of America, Geo Group, Management and Training Corp. and LaSalle Corrections - to keep their bids open until Nov. 22.