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"Arizona Prison Crisis: A Call for Smart on Crime Solutions", by Families Against Mandatory Minimums

11th May 2004

Phoenix, Az. - In an in-depth analysis of the impact of Arizona's sentencing laws, a report released today finds that the state's rigid mandatory sentencing laws fill prison cells and cost millions while doing little to enhance public safety.

"Arizona Prison Crisis: A Call for Smart on Crime Solutions" finds that rigid mandatory sentencing laws are largely to blame for the growth in incarceration of non-violent offenders, who make up over half of all prisoners. One in four prisoners are serving time for a property offense, one in five for a drug offense, and one in 12 for driving under the influence (DUI).

Commissioned by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), "Arizona Prison Crisis" provides policymakers with the first detailed look at the state's prison population and the specific laws that fuel the current overcrowding crisis. Authored by noted criminal justice researchers Judith Greene and Kevin Pranis of Justice Strategies, the report paints a portrait of a prison system packed with non-violent and low-level offenders, including substance abusers, disproportionate numbers of people of color and a rapidly growing population of women. The report also outlines comprehensive suggestions for sentencing reform, as well as more immediate steps to reduce overcrowding and save money.

"The legislature has been struggling to find solutions to fix Arizona's broken prison system," says Rep. Bill Konopnicki, who chaired the House Sentencing Alternatives Working Group. "This report provides a road-map for addressing prison overcrowding and saving money without compromising public safety. I'm encouraging my colleagues to read the report, and I hope we will be able to act on its recommendations in the next session. We can't afford to wait for the next hostage crisis."

Under Arizona law, mandatory prison terms are required for those convicted of "repetitive" offenses - even if the offenses are petty and non-violent. For example, an addict with one prior conviction for drug possession caught selling a gram of cocaine faces a sentence that is almost double that of a dealer caught with a kilo of cocaine the first time.

"After 25 years, the verdict is clear: Arizona's mandatory sentencing laws do not enhance public safety and the certainly do not deliver justice," says Judge Rudy Gerber, who helped author the 1978 criminal code that established mandatory sentencing. "In my 22 years on the bench, I was forced to sentence far too many people to prison when treatment, community service and restitution to victims would have been more appropriate."

According to the report, Arizona stands in stark contrast to neighboring states and is out-of-step with a national trend toward "smart-on-crime" solutions to prison overcrowding and mounting corrections costs. Although Arizona's incarceration rate leads the west, Arizona has had less success in reducing crime than its neighbors.

"Arizona's experience with mandatory sentencing is all too common: more and more state policymakers are discovering that mandatory sentences tie the hands of judges, send the wrong people to prison, and waste valuable dollars on non-violent offenders" says Laura Sager, executive director of FAMM. "Like other states, Arizona should consider smart-on-crime solutions to focus scarce correctional resources on more serious offenders, while giving judges the authority to hold non-violent and low-level offenders accountable in community based sanctions."

Despite Proposition 200, the report notes that non-violent substance abusers make up half of Arizona's prisoners. While Prop 200 has diverted hundreds to treatment and saved the state millions, the voter-approved initiative does not apply to addicts who fund their habits by selling small amounts of drugs or committing minor property offenses and can face long mandatory sentences.

"I spent years going in and out of incarceration because I stole to feed my drug habit," said Jeff Taylor, a recovered addict and program advisor for the Phoenix Rescue Mission. "Drug treatment turned my life around and, in my work with addicts in our programs, I've seen it do the same for many others. If we really want to take a bite out of crime, we need to expand access to treatment instead of prison. There is a cost effective solution."

The report also finds that women are the fastest-growing group of prisoners even though they commit the least serious offenses. The number of women behind bars grew 58 percent between 1998 and 2003 and is projected to grow by another 60 percent through 2008, driven by drug and property offenses. Three-fourths of incarcerated women are serving time for non-violent offenses and over half for low-level offenses. Three-fourths of women prisoners had severe chemical dependencies and a quarter had serious mental health problems.

People of color also appear to be hard hit by the state's sentencing laws and are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, especially for drug and DUI offenses. Racial and ethnic minorities make up just over a third of Arizona residents, over half of prisoners and nearly two-thirds of incarcerated drug and DUI offenders. Analysis of sentencing showed that African Americans and Latinos received longer sentences for drug and DUI offenses than whites with similar prior records.

Among the report's other findings:

- Drug offenders receive disproportionately harsh sentences. Prisoners convicted of drug sales - including low-level sales and even possession with intent to sell - received longer sentences than most violent offenders.

- DUI offenders serve long terms, driving prison growth. The number of incarcerated DUI offenders has grown at twice the rate of the overall prison population over the last five years and most DUI offenders are serving substantial sentences - 3.1 years on average.

- Probation in Arizona is tough and it works, but mandatory sentencing laws remove probation as a sentencing option for many non-violent and low-level offenders.

- Geographic disparity in use of incarceration is significant, and does not correlate with crime rates. Disparate incarceration rates are exacerbated by funding mechanisms that encourage use of prison over local alternatives.

The report calls for the appointment of a top-level commission to conduct a complete review of Arizona's sentencing laws. In addition, the report suggests sensible reforms that could be implemented in the short-term to relieve overcrowding, reduce costs and improve outcomes:

· Give judges the power to set aside mandatory prison sentences and divert appropriate offenders to treatment instead of prison.

· Limit use of mandatory sentencing enhancements to serious offenders.

· Fully fund drug courts and make them a sentencing option for all non-violent offenders with underlying substance abuse problems.

· Initiate a study to determine the causes of overrepresentation and sentencing disparity affecting Latinos, African Americans, and other people of color.

· Allow women prisoners who are non-violent drug abusers early release to re-entry drug court programs.

"Arizona Prison Crisis: A Call for Smart on Crime Solutions", was commissioned by Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and authored by Judith Greene and Kevin Pranis of Justice Strategies. Families Against Mandatory Minimums is a national non-profit, non-partisan organization that supports cost effective sentencing policies that promote judicial discretion while maintaining public safety.

 ©  Families Against Mandatory Minimums

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