Arizona's prison system is in crisis.

The state's prisons are built to hold 26,000 inmates. They now hold more than 30,000.

Under Arizona's current sentencing laws, the state's prison population is expected to continue exploding with more than 1,000 additional inmates every year. By next summer, Arizona prisons are estimated to be short 5,200 beds.

Arizona now has the highest incarceration rate of any western state. About 500 of every 100,000 Arizonans are in prison, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

To address the crisis, Governor Janet Napolitano, who's been both a state and a federal prosecutor, has proposed a prison expansion that would cost $700 million to add 9,134 beds at seven state prisons between 2004 and 2007. She wants legislators to immediately pump $26.4 million into the Department of Corrections as a stopgap measure.

This proposal comes as the state remains nearly $1 billion in debt.

Legislators began meeting this week in a special session designed to address the problems with both prison overcrowding and the beleaguered Child Protective Services.

But the overloading of the state prison system is a considerably more critical issue to the future financial health of the state.

An ad hoc committee of legislators has spent the last several months looking at alternatives to Arizona's present legal and penal system. There are myriads of ideas sprouting up across the country for creating a more effective and cost-effective justice system.

In fact, strapped with similar budget problems, numerous other states have moved away from increasingly severe prison terms.

For the first time in decades, several state legislatures have voted to relax and revamp sentencing codes, increase judicial discretion, promote rehabilitation over incarceration and increase good time credits along with numerous other measures aimed at reducing the number of inmates in their prison systems.

In the last year, a new catch phrase has been sweeping state legislatures. Democrats and Republicans, facing drastic budget cuts, are now "Smart on Crime."

Being "Tough on Crime" has proven to be an expensive failure.

Arizona legislators have yet to embrace the kinds of reforms that encompass being "smart on crime." But in this current special session -- and the debate likely will continue when the regular session begins in January -- legislators will be forced to make tough choices.

They can retain Arizona's comparatively harsh sentencing laws. To do so, though, they will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars the state does not have.

Such spending has always come with high costs in a state government perpetually strapped for cash. In the past, any increase in prison spending in Arizona has directly correlated to a decrease in higher education spending, according to a study conducted earlier this year by the Arizona Advocacy Network, a local social justice think tank.

Legislators could choose to reverse a 25-year trend toward increasingly harsh sentences, a conservative-driven tough-on-crime legacy that is known around the country as the "Arizona experiment."

"None of this is going to be easy," says Republican Representative Andy Biggs, who sits on an ad hoc legislative committee examining prison reform ideas. "The only thing that's clear is that something must be done. If we sit and do nothing, we'll be in deep, deep trouble."

And the political will may be there for sweeping change. Although this special session may be overshadowed by Napolitano's less-than-inspiring spending proposal, numerous legislators promise they will attack the problem again in January.

"We were kind of puzzled that the governor brought her proposal out just when we were out trying to get ideas for something other than a bricks and bars' proposal," says Representative Ted Downing, a Democrat from Tucson who's also on the reform committee. "To be honest, what she's proposing comes from the kind of thinking that got us into this mess."

And nothing less than sweeping reform, Downing says, will likely get us out.

"To me, this 25 years of building and playing with the criminal code has been an experiment like our experiment in Iraq," says Downing, a University of Arizona sociology professor. "At some point you turn around and say, Hey, what's this all costing us?' Well, it's cost us the education of our children and it's looking to cost even more than that.

"So it's our job to find a more cost-effective way to punish, and find the smartest way to break the cycle of crime while protecting public safety. That's a hefty job. But we've got to do better."

Governor Napolitano's recently released plan for Arizona's prisons focuses primarily on the critical shortages DOC is currently facing.

About half of the $26.4 million in stopgap emergency funding will go toward providing temporary beds. Officials are scouring county jails and out-of-state private prisons for space the state can rent to take the overflow of Arizona inmates.

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Robert Nelson