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

LISTEN: Arizona taxpayers pay to keep offenders in jail

It costs Arizona taxpayers about $1 billion each year to keep about 43,000 people 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,” said Dan Hunting, senior policy analyst with Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

The Arizona General Fund budget is about $9.2 billion for the state of Arizona, he 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.”

Whether or not that is a good thing or a bad thing for crime rates depends on how you look at it, he said.

After the Justice Department released 6,000 inmates nationwide this past October, law enforcement officials in Arizona have begun taking sides on the issue of prison reform.

But financially speaking for Arizona, Hunting said people need to remember that when a judge sentences a person to 20 year sentence for example, the story does not stop there.

“That 20-year sentence is really a 20-year obligation of state care that we are incurring at that point, he said. “You have to provide a cell for that person to be in, you have to provide guards to watch out for them, you have to provide clothing and healthcare and a whole set of expenses go with that for the duration of that term.”

Plus, unlike other state programs like for example education, in which funding can be cut or reduced, the state is legally obligated to continue this expense.

“Those obligations will not go away, even if we have a downturn in the economy,” Hunting said.

In October, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said in an interview with KTAR the release of the 6,000 inmates, 35 of which were from Arizona, was not something the state needed.

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.

“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?’”

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

Gascón said the high recidivism rate in Arizona has caused the prison population to skyrocket in recent decades and has resulted in a small return on the state’s initial investment.

“I think Arizona has just about doubled their (prison) population in the last 10 or 20 years and will continue to have to build more prisons,” he said.

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