27 States Reduced Rates of Both Violent Crime and Incarceration — But Not Arizona

Arizona keeps putting more people in prison, but analysts say there's a better way.
Arizona keeps putting more people in prison, but analysts say there's a better way.

Visit sunny Arizona, stay for seven to 10 — behind bars.

That could be the Arizona Chamber of Commerce's new slogan for the state, based on a recent analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, which shows that from 2006 to 2014, Arizona's incarceration rate increased by 10 percent, while violent crime fell by 30 percent.

Wait a sec. Prisons are full to burstin' and crime is down: Isn't that the way it's supposed to work?

Not in this era of perpetually declining crime rates, when 27 states, according to the Brennan Center, have decreased their crime rates and their rates of incarceration. Naturally, Arizona, with its love of private prisons and its jail 'em-and-whale-'em law-enforcement mentality is not one of those states. 

Even states that are as ruby-red Republican as Arizona have had better success at reducing their prison populations during the eight-year time period covered in the analysis, states like South Carolina (down 18 percent), Texas (down 15 percent,) and Mississippi (down 10 percent). The trend is national, according to the Brennan Center, and includes blue states like California (down 27 percent), New York (down 18 percent), and New Jersey (down 24 percent).

"Since 2006, the national state imprisonment rate has dropped by 7 percent," the report states. "28 states reduced their prison populations. Of those, every state but one (South Dakota) also saw crime drop."

The analysis, released June 8, is an update to the Brennan Center's 2015 report, "The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act," which calls for the federal government to provide financial incentives to states to reduce both their crime rate and their prison population, in much the same way that the federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 offered states federal money to put more people in prison. The center uses statistics from the FBI Uniform Crime Report, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the U.S. Census to arrive at its conclusions. 

The Brennan Center asserts that the drop in incarceration rates in these states is tied to reforms that have been implemented to achieve precisely that effect. For instance, the center's report notes that in 2010, South Carolina implemented laws that reduced mandatory-minimum sentencing, lessened sentences for "lower level property crimes," and streamlined its probation and parole systems. Reads the report: "These changes saved the state $18 million over four years, while crime fell by 22 percent in the same time span."

Arizona isn't the only state with a falling crime rate and a higher prison population. The Brennan Center says that 22 states increased their prison populations and still saw crime drop by 20 percent on average.

So where's the incentive to change?

Money. Reducing the prison population can result in more cash in a state's coffers and a reduction in recidivism, according to the center. It cites a study from 2008 showing that, nationally, the average cost for a probationer is $3.42 per day, versus $79 per day to incarcerate. The center estimates that "states and localities could save a little over $7 billion if 80 percent of nonviolent, non-serious offenders" are sentenced to alternatives to incarceration.

Locally, Arizona's Grand Canyon Institute, a centrist think tank, has been advocating for sentencing reform and alternatives to incarceration. Arizona incarcerates far more people than states of similar sizes, according to GCI's research director Dave Wells, who spoke to New Times for this story and ticked off some reasons that Arizona seems to lack common sense when it comes to corrections.  

First off, Wells says, Arizona is the only state that requires nonviolent offenders to serve 85 percent of time sentenced, a particularly draconian version of the "truth in sentencing" laws adopted by other states that apply the 85 percent rule to violent criminals.

No other state does this to nonviolent criminals, Wells says. GCI has estimated that Arizona could save $70 million if it transferred to a system of earned release for nonviolent offenders, which would reduce prison stays for inmates who meet certain requirements. 

"That certainly contributes to our prison population," Wells says of the 85 percent rule. "But I don't think it explains why our incarceration rate is still so high. There are a number of states that have similar populations to Arizona, but with remarkably lower incarceration rates. Massachusetts is, like, one-fourth of [Arizona's incarceration rate]. Washington state is about half. And Tennessee is two-thirds.

"The trend nationwide is that a lot of states have found ways to reduce their incarceration rate, and at the same time, most states have lowered their crime rate." 

One reason for Arizona's higher incarceration rates, says Wells, is an overly punitive criminal code, made more so every time the legislature in session.

For example, this year Governor Doug Ducey signed a bill that that will force illegal immigrants guilty of lower-level felonies to serve 85 percent of their sentence before they are turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation. Previously, inmates might be turned over to ICE after serving half of their time, unless the victim of the crime objected. 

The bill was passed on the premise that the new law will make the penal code fairer, but keeping these convicts in the system will require an additional $17 million from the state's general fund, according to an estimate from the Arizona Department of Corrections obtained by GCI.

Wells notes that in this year's session, the legislature made it a felony to hand in your neighbor's mail-in ballot to a county election department, an effort to curb so-called ballot harvesting by certain Democratic-leaning groups.

"There are states that disallow that," says Wells. "But no other state makes it a felony. At least, I couldn't find one."

Add overly zealous prosecutors to an already harsh penal code, and you get prisoners packed in like sardines. Which may be part of the plan for the reactionary politicians who run this state and welcome the private prison industry with open arms. Of the $24 million allocated to prisons in Arizona's 2016-2017 budget, $17 million went for 1,000 beds in a facility run by the Corrections Corporation of America in Eloy.

There was a mild stab at reform in the budget: $1.6 million for a 100-bed facility that would help some parolees transition into society after minor parole violations instead of sending them directly back to prison. But such small steps will not be enough to cure Arizona's addiction to incarceration. 

According to GCI, this year Arizona will spend close to 60 percent more on prisons than it will on higher education. That speaks volumes about the state's priorities. 

For GCI, the most obvious first step is for Arizona to move to earned early release for nonviolent offenders. According to Department of Corrections stats for 2015, more than one-third of all admissions to the state's prisons are for drug offenses. In addition, Wells says, DOC reports that 75 percent of those entering the system have serious substance-abuse histories but "almost no one" gets treated for addiction in Arizona's prisons.

Meaning that when these convicts get out, they may go back to their old habits and end up reoffending, an expensive proposition, when DOC's most recent numbers for 2015 say that it costs $65.28 per day per capita, or close to $24,000 per year, to keep an inmate behind bars in Arizona.

"We put in the money to incarcerate people," says Wells. "But that doesn't give any money for the programming and treatment that a lot of those folks need. Consequently, we're not addressing the root causes of what led to them getting into prison in the first place."


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