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Arizona: Editorial.
Prisoners of bad policy

July 07 18 2004

Arizona will spend $631 million this year to keep us safe from criminals. That's the blistering amount it costs to run the Department of Corrections and a proliferation of prisons scattered across the state for one year. One of the problems with this exorbitant expense is that it doesn't correct anything. Crime doesn't go away, and recidivism rates remain high.

There is no indication that Arizona's tough-on-crime sentencing laws - laws that are now keeping an estimated 31,000 inmates crammed into overcrowded prisons - do anything to discourage new crimes. In a recent report, the Corrections Department said its population increased by 141 offenders in May with an average increase of 92 offenders per month over the previous 12 months.

"The designated bed capacity was 29,140 and the offender daily count on May 30, 2004 was 31,950 resulting in prison overcrowding of 2,810 offenders," the report said.

Arizona's customary response to overcrowding has been to house inmates in tents or farm them out to other states or, more recently, to place them in private prisons. Sending them to other states tends to punish the inmate as well as his or her family, since it makes visits rare or financially impossible. Private prisons have not been shown to be cost effective and in any case end up as warehouses for inmates serving time for lesser offenses.

Private prisons are also big businesses that donate lots of money to the political campaigns of Arizona legislators - three private prison companies donated $266,004 to all Arizona legislative candidates in 2002, according to The Institute on Money in State Politics (

Caroline Isaacs, program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee's Criminal Justice Program, observed in a meeting with the Arizona Daily Star's editorial board that rehabilitation is far more cost effective than imprisonment, especially in the long run.

"The truly violent criminals have always been locked up and dealt with severely," she noted, "but the 'tough-on-crime' movement widened the net to include drug offenders, forgery, bounced checks, identity theft, economic crimes. The growth in the prison population is almost all in non-violent crime."

There are far better ways to deal with such offenders, as Corrections Department Director Dora Schriro has noted. Approximately 80 percent of all incarcerations are drug related. Schriro has suggested that such offenders would benefit from drug counseling, job training and therapy while living under close supervision in something like a halfway house.

The current system in Arizona, in which it costs an average of roughly $25,000 to house and feed one prisoner for a year, does not create a world where people feel any safer. Nor does it make a significant dent in recidivism. Untreated drug addicts, not surprisingly, will commit crimes repeatedly to support a habit.

Clearly, for many the system is a closed loop of arrest, imprisonment, re-arrest and imprisonment again. Voters should demand that the governor and Legislature look closely at who is being incarcerated and why, and demand two changes:

First, counter-productive mandatory sentencing laws should be repealed. And second, the state should implement alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent felons.

If 80 percent of the prison population consists of individuals with drug problems, does it not make sense to do everything possible to treat the addiction, train the inmate for a job in the real world, and improve the chances that he or she will not become a repeat offender?

Conservatives in the Legislature tend to see that view as bleeding heart liberalism, which some regard as an incurable malady. But what has the law and order crowd produced other than border-to-border prisons that suck up $631 million of taxpayer money? Can anyone be cheered by that price tag?

Failure to revise the mandatory sentencing laws will keep our prisons jammed and siphon funds from programs where it is sorely needed. Unless voters are willing to pay ever higher taxes to support an unproductive system, they should urge elected officials to revise sentencing laws and explore alternatives to 24-hour-a-day incarceration for nonviolent crimes.

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