By Josh Hamilton
Arizona law imposes some of the harshest prison sentences anywhere in the United States. Contrary to what you might believe, most of the people behind bars in Arizona are for non-violent offenses (in particular, for drug crimes). This is according to a new report released in September 2018 by the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) of Arizona.
According to the report, Arizona’s criminal justice system is in desperate need of serious reworking. It is grotesquely expensive, unduly punitive, discriminatory against minorities (especially against Latinos) and does little to actually keep our communities safe or cut down on recidivism.
Why is Arizona so bad? There are two main factors according to this new report: (1) Arizona’s lack of early-release programs, and (2) Arizona’s ridiculous mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
The first factor is a direct result of Arizona’s Truth-in-Sentencing (“TIS”) laws, passed in 1993-1994 during the height of the “get tough on crime” political movement spearheaded, in large part, by the failed War on Drugs. These laws require that all prisoners in Arizona must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they can be eligible for release. Most every state passed these laws in the wake of the federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act enacted by Congress that awarded large money grants to the states if they passed TIS statutes. Nearly every other state has since repealed these laws as outdated and ineffective, but not Arizona.
The second factor also stems from Clinton-era reforms to reduce crime, which strip discretion away from judges to make case-by-case determinations about whether someone belongs in prison or not. Instead, the judge’s hands are tied—he or she must send the offender to prison, even in those cases where everybody agrees that prison is not appropriate. As a result, judges all around Arizona are forced to send non-violent, low-level offenders to prison and for longer and longer sentences. Studies show these harsh sentences do not actually reduce crime at all.
According to the new statistics, though, most people in Arizona prisons are there for drug-related offenses. Drug-related offenses are non-violent crimes. In 2017, more than 20 percent of Arizona prisoners were there because of drug possession and nearly 33 percent were there because of drug possession/distribution. No other category came anywhere close to that; for instance, Aggravated Assault made up 12 percent of the overall prison population whereas Burglary made up just 8 percent.
Arizona has the 4th highest rate of imprisonment in the United States. We lock up 589 people per 100,000. The national average is nearly half that at 397 per 100,000. Furthermore, the number of incarcerated people in Arizona has increased nearly 20 percent since the year 2000. As of 2017, there were about 42,000 people behind bars in the Arizona state prison system, with even more expected in 2018.
Things are even bleaker when you consider that, among our Hispanic population, Arizona has the highest rate of incarceration anywhere in the nation. About 1 out of every 40 Latino men in Arizona are currently in prison. Even more are currently in the various other phases of the criminal justice system (pretrial release, jail, probation, parole, warrant status etc.). Arizona prison population is more than 40 percent Latino, but Latino’s only make up about 27 percent of our overall population.
Our legislature is to blame for these insane prison statistics because it allows itself to be influenced by Arizona prosecutors to scuttle any prison reform initiatives. Prosecutors have a powerful lobby called Arizona Prosecuting Attorney’s Advisory Council (“APAAC”) which it uses to influence the legislative process to its own benefit. In the last few years alone, Arizona’s prosecutors have opposed bail reform, sentencing reform, and lighter drug sentences while supporting stiffer penalties for a number of offenses.
The laws the prosecutors push for do not keep people safe or keep violent predators off the streets. They do nothing to prevent crime from occurring or rehabilitate those who do commit crimes so that they don’t commit crimes again in the future. Instead, Arizona prosecutors just wait until someone commits a crime and then seek to punish them as harshly as possible with overextended sentences, which leads to more problems in the future. Lives are ruined, families have been ripped apart, and the cycle continues.
These dangerous policies come with a high cost to taxpayers and are ineffective at preventing crime. The stakes are higher now than ever before. If you or a loved one find themselves facing such a case, contact a Tucson criminal defense attorney at the Law Office of Hernandez & Hamilton, PC to schedule a free consultation so we can help you protect your rights.