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Locked Up Arizona: A look at the state of Arizona’s criminal justice system

(AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
LISTEN: Locked Up Arizona

Locked Up Arizona is a documentary that has been in the works for months.

I started working on this documentary in November.

But before you listen, here are some statistics you need to know from the Arizona Department of Corrections:

  • Arizona has 16 state prisons, six of which are run by private companies.
  • In those prisons live more than 48,000 inmates, 51 percent of whom are locked up for violent offenses.
  • About 20 percent have had something violent occur in their past, which may or may not be related to their current charges.
  • And nearly 28 percent, or almost 12,000, inmates are classified as non-violent.

For all this, Arizona taxpayers pay a whopping $1 billion annually.

So obviously we should start letting people out, right? Maybe, maybe not.

Before you get into different parts of what made up the documentary, also know that World Class Arizona with Pat McMahon discussed the topic with a roundtable.

You can listen to that here:

Below are some of the highlights from the documentary. I’m not giving everything away — I hate spoilers — but this is some of the reading I did and some selections from the numerous interviews I conducted.

Arizona officials split on prison reform

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery thinks just freeing prisoners is a bad idea.

“Not as a categorical policy response,” he said. “The question that I would ask is, ‘Among the current prison population, who do you think should be released to live next to you in your community?’”

Montgomery said Arizona already has reforms that offer low-level, non-violent and first-time offenders alternatives to prison.

Former Arizona law enforcement official speaks out for state prison reform

Former Mesa Police Chief George Gascón is advocating for the need of reform for the state’s criminal justice system.

“We actually make communities less safe,” he said. “You lock up people for whatever period of time … and the reason why they went in is still untouched and they go back out into the community. They’re going to re-offend again.”

Gascón said he has implemented several sentencing reform and drug policies in California that have brought hundreds of millions into the state, money that can later be used for community-based supervision to ensure former prisoners are getting the services they need.

Arizona taxpayers are paying big bucks to keep people locked up in prison

“We’ve been sentencing more people to prison at a higher rate of growth than our state population, and our state tax base has grown,” Dan Hunting, senior policy analyst with Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said.

“So it’s 11 percent of the general fund, which is a pretty substantial amount,” Hunting said. “That’s one of the seven big agencies that really kind of drive our budget.”

Private prisons: Good or bad for Arizona?

“They are not good, [well] at least they are not providing the things that they have promised to the state of Arizona,” Caroline Isaacs with the American Friends Service Committee said.

“There’s no evidence that they’re saving us money, there’s no evidence that they are performing their duties and rehabilitating people and making our communities safer,” Isaacs said.

Leonard Gilroy, director of government reform with the Reason Foundation, said private prisons are neither good nor bad, they are a tool.

“Basically governments hire the private prison companies to replicate what is the public sector,” he said. “Operate a prison just like we do, just do it at a lower cost.”

The Reason Foundation has received contributions from the private prison industry.

Plea bargain system

“To a certain extent, justice is not the primary goal of a plea bargain system,” Jason Castle, a partner at Jaburg Wilk in Phoenix, said.

Castle began his career as a prosecutor nearly 15 years ago.

“The plea bargain system is about reducing risk and moving cases, plain and simple,” he said.

Originally designed just to help the state cut costs on capitol crimes, the justice system relies on the plea bargain system for everything, Castle said, all the way down to criminal speeding tickets.

“There are so many cases going through the criminal justice system that, without plea agreements, the system could not operate,” he said.

However, the state dictates what people are charged with, as well as any potential plea deal. In Castle’s opinion, that gives the state too much power.

Poll: Arizona voters don’t want more prisons

“The majority of Arizona voters are looking at the prison system and thinking maybe we’re incarcerating too many people and we ought to find other ways of dealing with those folks,” Associate Director David Daugherty with Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said.

A November 2015 Morrison poll asked nearly a thousand registered Arizona voters if they preferred more prisons or alternative programs that would keep non-violent offenders out of jail.

“And the results were 83 percent preferred treating offenders in the community compared with the 17 percent who say build new prisons,” Daugherty said.

Former Arizona inmate working to help felons return to society

“If the resources aren’t there ultimately individuals won’t know where to go sometimes,” Frantz Beasley, president of non-profit AZ Common Ground, said. “And that’s even for the individual that’s made the decision that they want to change.”

Beasley co-founded the organization after spending almost 15 years incarcerated.

“Seventy-five percent of what we do is work on adult re-entry, individuals that are coming home from the prison system,” he said. “Anywhere form life-skills training, character development classes, down to money management, job placement assistance, work readiness training. That’s what we do, in essence.”

What can be done?

“Let’s lock up the people we’re afraid of, not just the people we’re mad at,” Caroline Isaacs with the American Friends Service Committee said.

Other states are already implementing parole boards with shorter sentences, Isaacs said, along with risk assessments, combined with treatment and job placement.

Isaacs said parole boards could offer a way around Arizona’s truth-in-sentencing laws, which are some of the toughest in the country, and give some people shorter sentences.

“We’ve taken the ability for people who are incarcerated to earn their way out,” she said. “We have removed any incentive for them to do good stuff.”

Montgomery agrees with some of that.

“I look at incarceration as one tool among many,” he said.

Maricopa County currently has a series of new diversion, substance abuse and mental health programs in early stages that Isaacs called a good start. But it takes time to see if those programs are working, Montgomery said.

“If you can tie a specific link to prison, to how long it takes to provide particular programming that will successfully reduce recidivism and it directly contributes then to increased public safety, that’s the kind of analysis I’m interested in looking at,” he said.

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