Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice Release New Report on Sentencing Reform

Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice (AACJ) held a press conference this morning to announce the release of a report highlighting the need for sentencing reform.

The study, conducted by Judith Greene of Justice Strategies, notes that the state's criminal justice policies have "been among the harshest in the nation for many years" -- and are no longer fiscally viable.

In a time of budget cuts, the Arizona Department of Correction's budget is expected to increase by 10 percent next year, according to AACJ spokesperson David Derrickson.

The DOC currently incarcerates over 40,000 inmates.

Arizona's prison population grew at a rate of 5.1 percent from 2000-2008, highest in the western United States. Violent crime in that same timeframe was reduced by 9.5 percent. By contrast, New York's prison population fell by 1.9 percent while crime dropped 21.7 percent, a fact pointed out in the report.

Beyond New York, the study compares Arizona with the Carolinas and Mississippi, conservative states that have introduced various sentencing reforms to help reduce the prison population.

The report concludes that "Arizona policymakers can restore judicial discretion to sentence people to more effective, less costly correctional supervision and treatment options in lieu of prison in cases where such measures would clearly better serve both justice and public safety objectives."

Derrickson, a former presiding criminal judge for Maricopa County, tells New Times that the report suggests ways to reduce the number of prisoners in Arizona without harming public safety and while improving recidivism rates amongst released inmates.

"What's the incentive for a prisoner to work, to educate himself, to behave? There's no incentive for good behavior when a prisoner has to serve as much time for his offense as someone who gets involved in [prison] gangs," says Derrickson. "To me, that's not only wrong in a moral sense but also in a business sense."

In a sharp rebuke to current one-size-fits-all justice policies, AACJ suggests that "evidence-based" sentencing reforms need to be re-introduced to Arizona. Among the report's recommendations are suggestions that the state expand non-prison alternatives for low-risk offenders, reduce the amount of prison time served by those sentenced for low-risk offenses, and broaden home arrest and day reporting programs.

Derrickson went on to tell New Times that criminal justice reforms are necessary across the board. It might be time to take commutation powers from the governor, he says, because "we haven't had a meaningful release in years."

Critics contend that politics prevent politicians, like Governor Jan Brewer, from giving thought to our justice system, a point echoed by Derrickson.

"I think [the justice system] is driven by ideology rather than facts and a reasonable look at our programs. It would be a moral failure at this point not to do something about sentencing reform in light of our huge deficit."