New Report: Arizona's Drug Sentencing Policies Have Failed

New Report: Arizona's Drug Sentencing Policies Have Failed

Terry Blevins still remembers when, as a new patrol officer for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in the 1980s, he pulled over a young African-American man dressed "in a preppy sweater" on Bell Road.

His training officer told him to search the man's car, and he ended up finding half a joint in the ashtray.

"I will never forget, as I leaned the young man over the hood of the patrol car and put the handcuffs on him — I could see tears running down his face," Blevins, who now advocates for drug reform on behalf of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, recalls.

"He told me that he was heading to an Ivy League school in the fall with a full scholarship — and I knew that it was true, that it would be a felony risk."

At that point in his career, Blevins says, he realized that he was wasting time and resources "that could have been spent dealing with real crime" — not to mention the waste of human potential.

But more than 20 years later, Arizona's draconian drug policies haven't improved much.

A new report from the American Friends Service Committee — Arizona, which advocates for criminal justice reform and prisoners' rights, shows that they're incredibly ineffective when it comes to treating addiction, with nearly half of all people who get incarcerated later winding up back in prison.

They're also costing taxpayers a lot of money. As the report's authors point out, the Arizona Department of Corrections' budget is the third largest of any agency in the state, and has topped $1 billion for the past five years. Meanwhile, the amount of funding available for things like social services and state universities has shrunk.

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But all that money is being used to keep murderers and child rapists off the street, right? Yeah ... nope.

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The largest share of Arizona prisoners are there for drug offenses — more than the number of people who are there for murder and child molestation combined. And according to the study, incarcerating people whose most serious crime is a drug offense costs the state $588,655 per day.

The AFSC's researchers used court records from three counties (Maricopa, Pima, and Yavapai) to compile data about drug convictions that resulted in prison sentences during 2015.

Among their findings:

• According to the Department of Corrections, at least 75 percent of all prisoners statewide have "significant substance abuse histories." Yet less than 2 percent are receiving treatment while incarcerated, often because those programs simply don't exist. ("It's not that they're not taking advantage of them, it's that they're not offered," Caroline Isaacs, the AFSC's program director, says.)

• Black people are sentenced to prison for drug possession at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group. They also receive sentences that are 25 percent longer, on average. As a result, even though African-Americans make up less than 5 percent of Arizona's population, they represent nearly 14 percent of the Department of Corrections' inmate population.

• The Maricopa County Attorney's Office spends a significant amount of its time and resources on prosecuting drug crimes. The number one most frequent charge that people face in court is "Drug Paraphernalia-Possesion/Use," followed by "Dangerous Drug-Posesssion/Use," and then "Marijuana-Possession/Use."

• Arizona has the fourth-highest incarceration rate for women in the entire country — a statistic that refers to the percentage of the state's total population that's behind bars, and therefore has nothing to do with the fact that this is relatively large state. Roughly a third of women in Arizona prisons are serving time for drug offenses.

• According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the rate of drug use in Arizona increased between 2010 and 2014, suggesting that harsh sentences aren't serving as a deterrent.

The report, Blevins says, "provides concrete evidence that cycling Arizonans in and out of jail doesn't stop them from using drugs."

If there's one main takeaway from the report (which is well worth reading in full), it's that drug addiction needs to be treated as a disease, and that incarcerating people won't solve the problem.

"The best practice model for addressing drug addiction is to treat it as a chronic disease rather than as willful criminal behavior," the study's authors note.

Governor Doug Ducey's decision to ask the Department of Health Services to respond to the growing number of opioid-related deaths is a step in the right direction, Caroline Isaacs of AFSC-Arizona, one of the co-authors of the study, said.

"We're very pleased that there's beginning to be an embrace of this public health-based understanding of addiction, but we want to insist that frame gets applied across the board."

The responses to the meth and crack epidemics — which predominantly affected people of color — were considerably different, she points out.

"A lot of this stuff, let's face it, is racially based and racially motivated."

The AFSC's report concludes with five policy recommendations: requiring better data collection, de-felonizing drug possession, expanding treatment options, re-evaluating existing drug sentencing policies, and implementing public health approaches like clean needle exchanges.

click to enlarge Caroline Isaacs - ANTONIA FARZAN
Caroline Isaacs
Antonia Farzan
Out of all of those, Isaacs said, de-felonizing drug possession would have the largest impact.

But is it likely to happen in Arizona?

"I'm eternally optimistic."

Criminal justice reform has started to gain traction both on the right and the left, she noted, pointing to a recent collaboration by the ACLU of Arizona and the Goldwater Institute as one example.

"This is not as big of a lift as it once was," she said.

Isaacs hopes that having concrete evidence of the ineffectiveness of Arizona's current drug policies will make it easier for lawmakers to argue for reforms that might not necessarily sit well with their constituents.

"That's a big part of why we wanted to do this report — to say, 'If this feels difficult, if you're concerned about how this is going to be played out in the media, here's what you need to be able to justify making the right decisions around these policies.'"

Read the full report here:
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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.