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Report shows vast inequalities in Arizona prison system

FILE - In this July 23, 2014, file photo, a fence surrounds the state prison in Florence, Ariz. (AP Photo/File)

PHOENIX – A new in-depth look into Arizona’s prison system showed vast inequalities in how people are locked up across the state.

The report released this week was the second covering Arizona’s prison system by FWD.us, a bipartisan political organization whose founders include Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.

The first report, released last month, found that Arizona’s prison population has been skyrocketing even though crime has dropped in both total numbers and rate.

The new report concludes that Arizona has an imprisonment crises, but it isn’t experienced uniformly.

A third entry in the series, about how imprisonment hurts Arizona women and families, is also in the works.

The latest report found that Arizonans are imprisoned at different rates depending on their ethnicity.

For example, Hispanic people are overrepresented among those imprisoned for marijuana possession.

“They [Hispanics] make up about 31 percent of Arizona’s population and 32 percent of arrests for marijuana possession, but almost 60 percent of people who go to prison for marijuana possession,” Felicity Rose, FWD.us research and policy director for criminal justice reform, told KTAR News 92.3 FM on Thursday.

Minorities also tend to be sent away for longer periods.

Rose said black people are given average sentences for drug possession of 56 months, while the average for white people is 36 months.

“So you can see a pretty big difference in those groups just for simple drug possession,” she said.

The report also found that rural counties are more likely to send people to prison than urban counties.

Rural Graham County in eastern Arizona sends 46 people to prison each year per 10,000 residents. The figure in Pima County, which encompasses the Tucson area, is 20 per 10,000.

“So if you’re in a rural county you may be more likely to go to prison,” Rose said.

The first Arizona report by FWD.us found that state’s prison population grew by 60 percent since 2000 while the overall population increased by just 33 percent, all while crime has gone down.

To provide context, Rose said her group compared Arizona’s largest county, Maricopa, to Miami-Dade County in Florida, which is similar in size and crime rate.

“What we found was that Maricopa County sends six times as many people to prison each year as Miami-Dade even though they’re otherwise very similar and have both had very large crime declines in the last 17 years,” she said.

Rose said Arizona spends more than $1 billion on its prison system annually.

However, it isn’t among the 32 states that have reduced both crime rate and imprisonment rate in the last decade.

“So we know that his burden doesn’t need to be so heavy, that there are other ways to prevent crime than sending everyone to prison,” Rose said.

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