Thursday, May 19, 2011

Arizona's Growth Industry: Nothing to Be Proud Of

Here's a lengthy but excellent article from The Cronkite News today about conservatives, sentencing reform, and the phenomenal growth in Arizona's prisons.
As states face large budget deficits, calls for reforming sentencing for non-violent offenders also are coming increasingly from conservatives who call prison costs unsustainable.
While Arizona’s population increased by 24.6 percent from 2001 to 2010, the population in state and private prisons rose 50.8 percent to 40,508. Bill Hart, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, said laws requiring mandatory minimum and maximum sentences for a broadening range of non-violent offenses contributed to that.
“Incarceration has long been a growth industry in Arizona,” he said.
Rep. Cecil Ash, R-Mesa, a former public defender who has pushed unsuccessfully for changes to sentencing laws, said incarcerating non-violent offenders whose punishments could be handled in less-expensive ways leaves other state programs neglected. He pointed to lesser drug offenses and white-collar crimes as examples.
“There are only limited funds to go around, and it’s being used in the Department of Corrections,” Ash said. “If we are wasting money in some areas that could be better used in health care or education, then it has an impact.”
The article also gets into the politics of moving reform legislation in a notoriously tough-on-crime state like Arizona.  One Arizona prosecutor's words are particularly galling:
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said he looks to crime rates to see what’s working.
If we’re warehousing them, fewer crimes are being committed, and then other offenders who are out there on the streets don’t have the professionals teaching them what to do,” he said.
Montgomery added that there’s a lack of objective data on the effect of alternatives to prison sentences.
“And without being able to do that I would be very suspect of people trying to say, ‘Aha! Diversion reduces crime which reduces an inmate population,’” Montgomery said.
Even if he's right about crime rates and the benefits of "warehousing" (those are human beings, by the way, not widgets or boxes or crates), it's an awfully high price to pay, and how much bang for their buck are Arizonans really getting?  And he seems woefully ignorant of the reams of "objective data" that say that alternatives like drug courts reduce recidivism and improve lives.

All around, a good example of how much work still needs to be done to change hearts, minds, and budgets on sentencing issues.