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Report: Arizona spends over $500,000 a day to lock up drug offenders

(AP Photo/Russell Contreras, File)

PHOENIX — Arizona is spending more than $500,000 every day to lock up people whose most serious charge is a drug offense.

“Drug laws are a major factor driving the size, scope and cost of our criminal justice system,” said Caroline Isaacs, program director for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

The report called “Drug Sentencing in Arizona: A Prescription for Failure” is the result of a year of analysis of Arizona Department of Corrections data by AFSC researchers.

“Despite this obscene expenditure of taxpayer dollars, there is very little meaningful drug treatment offered in prison to cure their addiction,” Isaacs said.

The report claims less than 3 percent of state prisoners are actually enrolled in drug treatment programs at any given time.

“Drug offenses, primarily possessions, are at or near the top of every chart,” Isaacs said. “Most arrests, most charges, most incarcerations.”

The report indicates 21.3 percent of Arizona’s prisoners have a drug crime as their highest charge, and statewide drug arrests comprised 11.73 percent of all arrests in 2015.

“Criminalization of addiction is a failed strategy,” Isaacs said. “You can’t punish a disease out of people. Treatment is cheaper and works better.”

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery strongly disagrees with many of the conclusions drawn by the report.

“This report fails to take into account that we are at 50 year lows in crime,” Montgomery said. “I haven’t seen an acknowledgment in here that Arizona has been a treatment-first state since 1996.”

There is also no mention in the report of mandatory treatment for the first two drug possession use or offenses, he said. Or acknowledgement of Arizona’s need for stiffer penalties due to drug trafficking through the southern border.

“I think that’s a fatal flaw,” he said.

The group’s policy recommendations include better data collection and analysis, and expanded treatment options.

“But the biggest bang for the buck is reforming our drug sentencing,” Isaacs said. “Both defelonization of possession offenses and also kind of recalibrating the whole drug sentencing structure.”


However, there are some areas of agreement between the two sides. Montgomery gave three policy recommendations that he would support.

“I do believe that we should have standardized data collection and analysis on an annual basis,” he said. “We need more community-based treatment for substance abusers.”

Arizona currently has the fifth-highest incarceration rate in the U.S., according to the report, with a recidivism rate of 49.3 percent.

The state also needs to focus on reducing its recidivism rate, Montgomery said.

“At the same time, we can’t eliminate the criminal justice system response,” Montgomery said. “Because as many addicts will tell you, consequences are sometimes the only thing that gets their attention.”

But do not defelonize or decriminalize, because send exactly the wrong message, he said.

“The law is a moral teacher,” he said. “Tell people that drug behavior is not serious, you’re going to get more of it. Give people the wrong impression that they can engage in substance abuse with no consequences, you’ll have more of it.”

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