PHOENIX — As the Justice Department announced this week the impending record release of 6,000 inmates nationwide, Arizona leaders and justice advocates are split on the need for prison reform.
The inmate release, scheduled to happen between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2, will see 35 people released in Arizona. It’s part of an effort to ease harsh penalties for non-violent drug crimes and overcrowding, but in a one-on-one interview with KTAR, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said this is not something Arizona needs.
“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 pointed to a study that showed 95 percent of Arizona’s prison population are violent and/or repeat offenders. He said non-violent drug crime, such as trafficking and selling, still carries a high potential for violence and is an immediate threat to the community.
Caroline Isaacs with the justice advocacy group American Friends Service Committee questioned Montgomery’s numbers. She said they stem from a Department of Corrections report that may unfairly lump violent and repeat offenders together, essentially inflating the statistics.
“We don’t have a number across the state, for each county, on how many people are sentenced under a given statute,” she said. “So it’s difficult for us to begin really looking how to change our sentencing laws because we don’t have any idea how they are being applied.”
Montgomery said those who commit a non-violent crime rarely see prison for their first offense.
“Unless you’ve committed a dangerous crime against a child, unless you’ve committed certain sexual offenses, unless you caused serious physical injury or used a deadly weapon or a dangerous instrument, your first felony conviction is not going to result in prison,” he said. “You’re going to probation.”
Even a second conviction does not guarantee the person time behind bars.
“We are a second-chance society,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery also said Arizona’s incarceration issue is different than others because, as a border state, it remains a major path for drugs into the United States.
“We need to be strict, stringent in prosecuting cases in a constitutional manner, and assigning punishment, to deter and dissuade others from engaging in similar conduct,” he said.
Isaacs said that argument is invalid because Arizona has the sixth-highest incarceration rate in the nation and the highest of any border state.
“California is a border state. New Mexico is a border state. Texas is border state.”
Despite their differences, both Montgomery and Isaacs agreed Arizona’s recidivism rate — the rate at which a person relapses into criminal behavior following sanctions or intervention for a previous crime — of 40 percent is a cause of concern.
“I think Arizona would do well to take a look at recidivism, and what we can do to continue to reduce the instance of previously incarcerated inmates from reoffending,” Montgomery said. “I phrase it that way because the broader topic about criminal justice reform has begun with the conclusion that we suffer from mass incarceration.”
Though Issacs agreed some of Montgomery’s diversion programs are a step in the right direction, Arizona is still lagging on prison reform.
“Arizona is long overdue for change,” she said, adding that some of Montgomery’s programs are only in effect in certain counties.
Isaacs said one step Arizona could take toward prison reform would ask officials to look at the actual circumstances and risk levels of individual inmates instead of the general crime they committed. She said there are scientific tools used by other states that can determine if an inmate should be considered for early release.
Isaacs also called for a bipartisan commission to study Arizona’s sentencing structure across the board and to find the source of why people are committing crime rather than paying private prison corporations to house them.
“We all want less crime,” she said. “We want to feel safe in our communities. Incarceration is not solving that problem.”