ACLU Highlights 'Disturbing Trends' in Arizona's Criminal Justice System

No other state in the country imprisons Latinos at such a high rate. Only in three other states are greater percentages of the population behind bars. To top it off, far more of Arizona's prisoners are incarcerated for possessing or selling drugs than for any other crime, like assault, burglary, or driving under the influence. These are among the key findings from a report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona.

The 17-page report, Blueprint for Smart Justice, (below), suggests that Arizona's criminal justice system is expensive, discriminates unfairly against minorities, and doesn't keep communities safer or reduce recidivism. Phoenix New Times received an advance copy of the report.

"We believe that the Arizona criminal justice system needs to be radically changed," said Alessandra Soler, the executive director of ACLU Arizona, in an interview on Tuesday. "We wanted to highlight the bigger picture, disturbing trends, and why Arizona is such an outlier, why we're at the top of the list."

The report homed in on two factors. One is Arizona's lack of early-release programs, stemming from Arizona's 1993 "truth-in-sentencing" law, which requires prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. The other reason is mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

If someone who's addicted to drugs is caught a second or third time selling to support their habit, the repeat offense is considered trafficking, Soler said.

"Judges don't have the discretion to make those case-by-case determinations about whether somebody belongs in treatment instead of prison," she said. "The judge's hands are tied."

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery declined through a spokesperson to comment for this story. Instead, Amanda Steele, the spokesperson for the attorney's office, directed New Times to, which is maintained by the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys' Advisory Council, as well as online reports from the Department of Corrections.

Among the first items listed on the home page of is a list of "Top 5 Myths About Arizona's Sentencing Laws." Myth No. 3: "Arizona prisons are filled with low level drug offenders and others guilty of minor crimes."

Montgomery has said that 95 percent of prisoners are either repeat or violent offenders, citing a controversial 2014 study produced by the council.

But the ACLU disputes that classification on the basis that it doesn't accurately break down what proportion of offenders are violent and those who are not. "Half of the people who were imprisoned were imprisoned for an offense that did not involve violence," Soler said, adding that the ACLU doesn't ordinarily classify drug offenses as violent.

According to its report, drug-related offenses are the most common cause of imprisonment in Arizona. In 2017, one out of five prisoners ended up behind bars because of drug possession, and nearly one in three because of possession and distribution. No other offenses came close to accounting for that proportion of admissions — assault made up 12 percent of the prison population and burglary 8 percent, for instance.

Arizona has the fourth-highest rate of imprisonment in the country — 589 per 100,000 people. (The national rate is 397 per 100,000.) The number of incarcerated people in Arizona has risen 20 percent since the year 2000, reaching a peak of 42,902 in 2016 before dipping to 41,964 last year, the report said.

Among its Latino population, Arizona has the highest rate of incarceration in the country. In 2016, one out of 40 Arizona Latino men was in prison. That year, Arizona's prison population was 40 percent Latino, even though the state's population is 27 percent Latino.

The report did not mention the percentage of undocumented immigrants in Arizona prisons, where they are disproportionately represented. According to a report released in January by a right-wing researcher and based on Department of Corrections numbers, in 2014, undocumented immigrants accounted for 4.8 percent of the state's population but 12.6 percent of its prisoners.

Soler said that the ACLU decided not to break down those numbers in its report because the majority of Latinos in the prison system are U.S. citizens, she said. Undocumented immigrants "did not represent the vast majority of Latinos in the system."

Last year, the American Friends Service Committee — Arizona published a report with similar findings. It also showed that the state's drug policies came at a high cost to taxpayers and that they were ineffective in treating addiction, New Times reported.

You can read the full report by ACLU Arizona here:
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.