Billion-Dollar Bad Guys

The county's jails are crammed full. But not with the dangerous felons backers of an initiative to raise money for new jails would have you believe.

Arpaio had claimed that his plan to pack the jails and make them places of punishment--rather than simply detention centers for people awaiting trial--would do just that. Arpaio would make the jails so miserable, inmates wouldn't want to come back, so they'd stop committing crime.

Arpaio was confident that his policies--rotten food, no cigarettes, pink underwear for men--were having a measurable effect on inmate recidivism. So last year he hired ASU professors John Hepburn and Marie Griffin to study the return rate.

In March, Hepburn and Griffin released their report. Arpaio's stringent programs had no measurable effect on inmate recidivism. Inmates were coming back with the same frequency as prisoners who had served in years before Arpaio's tenure.

"We concluded that the additional hardships don't really register any additional deterrent effect," Hepburn says. "For most prisoners, their concerns are the same we find elsewhere, that is for privacy and simply being incarcerated."

After a brief splash of publicity, however, the county has done nothing with the Hepburn-Griffin report.

That's too bad, because the document also provided a detailed look at the population of sentenced inmates in the jail, who make up about 30 percent of all prisoners. About two thirds of them are serving sentences for misdemeanors.

The Hepburn-Griffin study reported startling data about how many prisoners return to jail time and again. "More than 85 percent of these offenders had at least one arrest prior to the arrest that resulted in their sentence to the Maricopa County jail," the professors wrote.

"A lot of people expect to be back," Hepburn tells New Times. "They're driving on a suspended license. They choose to do that rather than get another job or take a bus. Or they haven't paid a fee and they say they won't be able to pay it when they get out."

So the jails stay crowded, filled with people caught in a pathetic cycle of fines and misdemeanors.

ASU professor Dennis Palumbo questions whether it's worth a billion dollars to spread that net wider.

"Arizona is the sixth highest in the nation in its incarceration rate. . . . It's the rate that's the problem," he says. At more than 800 people incarcerated per 100,000, Arizona's incarceration rate is almost twice the national average and more than twice the rate of South Africa and Russia.

"What a number of people have said about this billion-dollar bill the taxpayers will be stuck with--if they're dumb enough to vote for it--is that if you build it, they will come," Palumbo says. "No sooner will those jails be built than they'll be filled up and we're going to need more.

"It's a never-ending escalator, and you'd hope that one of these days taxpayers would get wise. Unfortunately, voters simply do not understand what is going on. They assume that most of the people in the jail and prison are violent, nasty, sexual and other kinds of predators who are out there to get you and kill you, when that is not the situation."

Neither of the studies into the nature of his jails has apparently persuaded Arpaio to change his policies. Despite the Hepburn-Griffin study's conclusions that his hardships have had no measurable effect on recidivism, Arpaio has not done away with any of them. In fact, seeming to forget that he had commissioned and paid for the study, Arpaio dismissed it as a nuisance when it didn't produce the results he wanted.

Arpaio shows similar disregard for the conclusions drawn by the county's paid consultants, who stressed that before any new jails are built, the county should hire 139 new detention officers.

"No new beds should be added to the jail system in the future without the . . . allocation of staff to properly supervise the increased inmate capacity," they reported.

Grossly understaffed jails add to county liability, the consultants noted, singling out the chain gangs as a particularly bad waste of personnel: "Eight detention officers are assigned to the chain gangs to supervise a total of 60 inmates. Considering that one detention officer supervises between 100 and 132 inmates in dormitories at Estrella, it is clear that the chain gangs are not the best utilization of staff. . . . It is recommended that this program be suspended until there is adequate staffing inside the jails."

Arpaio's office, however, says that, for sure, is one suggestion he'll ignore.

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