Private-Prison Costs Alarming to Arizona Lawmakers of Both Parties

Arizona lawmakers are discovering that it costs a lot of money to be "tough on crime."

Just as Governor Doug Ducey was elected under a promise of getting the state in fiscal shape, he's proposing new spending of more than $70 million a year for more space in private prisons (while he's proposing a $75 million cut in university funding).

Most lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seemed a bit bewildered Tuesday, as Arizona Department of Corrections director Charles Ryan defended the planned increase to a Senate committee yesterday.

The plan is to pay for 3,000 more prison beds with this money -- to deal with overcrowding as well as a projected increase in the state's prison population -- and lawmakers wanted to know if there were perhaps too many people in prison, and whether that money could be better spent on things like education.

Ryan was peppered with questions, but there was no agreement on a group of people that could be let go. And based on number-crunches, private prisons are the cheapest way to go.

Republican Senator John Kavanagh said 94 percent of the state's prison population is made up of sex offenders, violent offenders, and repeat offenders.

Arizona's not a state known for locking up non-violent drug offenders either, Kavanagh said.

"You have to work unbelievably hard to get into prison in Arizona as a non-violent drug offender," he said.

In 2008, a state law was passed that expanded probation programs for low-risk offenders. Perhaps it's a coincidence, but the state's prison population actually went down over the next three years, but has been on the increase in the last few years, and there's a projected increase from here.

Michael Dolny, the ADC's research director, pointed out that the average sentence has been getting longer, which is due to Arizona's "truth in sentencing" laws, which require someone to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for release.

Whereas the current path would lead to more than $1 billion in spending on private prisons over the next year, there has been an option advertised that would not spend that billion dollars, and instead save an additional $1 billion in 20 years.

The Grand Canyon Institute, which bills itself as a centrist organization, released a research paper nearly three years ago outlining methods currently employed in other states that could do the trick:

Arizona through its evidence-based work in adult probation has shown that alternatives to incarceration can both help offenders succeed and save the state money without imperiling public safety. It's time for Arizona to take the next step by replacing "Truth in Sentencing" for nonviolent offenders with community supervision diversion programs and/or establish a 50 percent earned release program, whereby inmates who successfully complete evidence-based programs that reduce recidivism are rewarded with reduced prison time that is replaced with some kind of community supervision.

Such policies would save the state between $30 and $73 million annually, while maintaining public safety. However, these savings are not possible unless the legislature acts to enable more flexible and effective means of dealing with nonviolent offenders, much like they did in 2008.

The proposed increase in corrections funding will still continue to be up for debate, as yesterday's meeting was simply a presentation from ADC director Ryan. There's been no proposal to go along with the Grand Canyon Institute's thinking on this, though.

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley