Locked Up

Once again, Arizona taxpayers have been stung with a classic bait-and-switch.

This time, the financial ruse comes under the guise of prison reform.

Arizona's prisons can handle 27,000 inmates. They currently house 31,000. So legislators went into special session with the goal of solving the overcrowding crisis.

Prior to the session, both Democratic and Republican legislators insisted they were committed to addressing the true core of the problem: Arizona's broken criminal code.

Basically, the idea was that maybe, just maybe, the overcrowding was a result of locking up too many people for relatively minor first offenses for far too long a time. In the last 25 years, Arizona's criminal code has become a layer cake of politically motivated "tough-on-crime" legislation. As new laws piled on piles of old laws, the criminal code became a labyrinthine text understood only by the prosecutors who make their name by twisting screwy criminal codes into outrageously long sentences.

Arizona now has the highest incarceration rate of any state in the West. As the laws stand now, our prison population will continue to swell with an additional 1,000 Arizonans each year.

In a cover story before the session ("Clink!" October 23), I outlined more than two dozen tweaks to the state criminal code or corrections system that could relieve prison overcrowding and save the state money without compromising public safety. Most had proven effective in other states with similar problems.

And most were simple. In one case, a slight change in wording would allow the state's prison director to move inmates sentenced for minor offenses to community supervision if the state's prison system became dangerously overcrowded (as it is now). With that tweak, 2,500 nonviolent, first-time inmates guilty of Class 4, 5 or 6 felonies could possibly be processed for early release to community supervision.

In a 1990s study of recidivism rates among released Arizona prisoners, about 25 percent of inmates released after their sentence expired committed another felony within three years. But among 460 nonviolent inmates who had been set free under a now-defunct early-release program, the recidivism rate was only 15.4 percent.

Community supervision programs are much cheaper than keeping people in $25,000-a-year prison beds and much more effective at stopping future crimes. If 2,000 inmates were deemed eligible to be put into such programs, the overcrowding problem would be cut in half right there.

Once the special session started, though, it quickly became clear that legislators, particularly conservative Republicans, were just blowing smoke about sentencing reform and saving money.

Now it's become clear that this special session was really about putting more money into the pockets of private-prison executives.

Two weeks ago, private-prison lapdogs such as Russell Pearce, Bob Burns and Jake Flake, all Republican beneficiaries of prison company donations, showed up with bills proposing that the state contract for an additional 3,000 beds in private prisons.

"Suddenly, out of nowhere, it just surfaced," says Democratic Representative Ted Downing, who sits on both the House Judiciary Committee and on a committee charged with looking at sentencing reform ideas. "All of a sudden, the solution was more private prisons."

"There's no question this is a course of action that's been predetermined," says Middle Ground's Donna Hamm, who has been lobbying legislators daily to consider reform measures. "It has been a very disheartening couple of weeks."

The original version of the private-prison bill was particularly sickening because it proposed funneling all the expansion to one company, Correctional Services Corporation, which already houses about 2,500 Arizona inmates.

Last spring, I wrote about the myriad problems of CSC ("Big House Inc.," April 3), including the record $300,000 fine CSC received the month before from the New York Lobbying Commission for failing to report free transportation, meals and other gifts it had given to legislators in an effort to keep more than $22 million in contracts in the state. Also included in that piece was the litany of CSC problems around the country, including the Pahokee Center in Florida, which a juvenile court judge there compared to a "Third World country that is controlled by . . . some type of evil power."

I also noted at the time that CSC had given Arizona legislators $5,849 in the 2002 election, making it by far the largest campaign contributor among private-prison corporations and the fifth-largest among general business contributors.

Well, these CSC lobbyists have been working overtime down at the capitol the last few weeks. And they've been particularly nasty when folks try to bring up some of the facts such as those detailed in that April article.

"This nice Quaker woman was handing out the rap sheet on CSC, and the CSC guy turns to her and threatens to sue her," Downing says, describing an incident during a recent committee hearing. "I mean, who the heck threatens to sue a Quaker?"

Democrats and moderate Republicans have scrambled to at least modify this juggernaut of a bill. The attorney general also stepped in, reminding guys like Pearce that it's grossly unconstitutional to make laws that circumvent the bidding process to the benefit of one company.

The governor and Department of Corrections officials jumped in, too, arguing correctly that the state can actually do the job cheaper, and much better, than private prisons. The bill was amended to allow a bid from the state.

The grooviest proposed amendment came flying in from Phoenix Senator Bill Brotherton. He proposed forbidding contracts with any company found to have bribed public officials.

All of a sudden, that $300,000 fine in New York becomes a lot more expensive for CSC.

The amended bill currently before the Senate awaiting a trip to the governor isn't as grotesque as the one first proposed by conservative Republicans. But it still stinks, and the governor should still execute the thing with a veto if the Senate, as predicted, sends it to her when it returns from recess December 1.

But that will be tough because the Republicans have set a trap for her. If she vetoes, the Republicans will go whining to the public: We tried to solve the problem, but the governor wouldn't let us.

This could become an even greater political football if a riot erupts in one of our overcrowded prisons. Then the blame falls on those perceived to have dragged their feet in finding a solution.

And all this yammering will further cloud the reason much of this yammering began in the first place.

Oh yeah, what about all that sentencing reform?

Democrats and moderate Republicans promise that sentencing reform is still a top priority of legislators. But they admit it will have to be a top priority when the next general session begins after the holidays.

I'm not buying it. I think sentencing reform will get lost in the dozens of other dire issues legislators will have to face beginning in January. This will be doubly true if a massive increase in prison beds comes out of this special session.

Without overcrowding, who is going to want to go back and tackle a complex and politically dicey issue such as criminal code reform?

"It certainly dulls the edge on the idea of sentencing reform," Downing says.

Still, Downing says that Democrats and moderate Republicans like Bill Konopnicki, who leads the committee considering reform ideas, have a list of about two dozen sentencing alternative ideas they'd like to look at in the general session.

"We know from public input that the interest is still definitely there," Downing says. "We will not let it die."

More power to them. But if recent history is any indication, any serious reform will be trampled by special interests and the next big issue.

Just rest assured that, without substantial changes, another overcrowding crisis is just a few years away. And when that crisis comes, don't forget who to blame: the members of the 46th Arizona State Legislature.

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-744-6549.