ARIZONA NEWS

Arizona has the 4th highest imprisonment rate in the US

Sep 5, 2018, 5:00 AM | Updated: 3:36 pm
FILE - In this July 23, 2014, file photo, a fence surrounds the state prison in Florence, Ariz. (AP...
FILE - In this July 23, 2014, file photo, a fence surrounds the state prison in Florence, Ariz. (AP Photo/File)
(AP Photo/File)

PHOENIX — Arizona has one of the highest imprisonment rates in the United States, according to a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.

The report by the ACLU of Arizona found the state incarcerated 589 people per 100,000, compared with 397 people per 100,000 people across the county. That put Arizona as the state with the fourth-highest imprisonment rate in the U.S.

“Crime for the most part hasn’t really increased in the past decade, yet we’re seeing this dramatic increase in the number of people that are behind bars,” said Alessandra Soler, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona.

But Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said the report doesn’t include key information, such as how Arizona is the nation’s top thoroughfare for drug smuggling into the U.S. and how Arizona has the third-largest number of incarcerated undocumented immigrants with criminal records.

“It doesn’t take into account the unique environment in which crime occurs within Arizona,” Montgomery said.

“The reason why that is such a big deal is if you don’t understand the nature of the crime that’s occurring and why, you’re going to cherry pick statistics that aren’t going to be understood within context.”

Between 2000 and 2016, Arizona’s imprisonment rate increased by 20 percent. At the same time, the national rate declined by 7 percent. Montgomery said during that time period, crime dropped by 41 percent.

“You have to take that into account in order to understand that we’re imprisoning the right people and we’re seeing the public safety benefit,” he said.

According to the report, more than half of people in Arizona prisons were serving time for an offense that did not involve violence.

Drug possession and distribution were the most common offenses, accounting for 32 percent of prison admissions last year.

Other common offenses included assault, burglary and driving under the influence.

The report also found Arizona had the highest Latino imprisonment rate in the country. Latino men made up 40 percent of the Arizona prison population in 2016, even though Latinos constituted 27 percent of the overall state population.

Montgomery said that’s due in part to the majority of undocumented immigrants in Arizona prisons being Latinos.

Black men were also disproportionately imprisoned in Arizona. They made up 14 percent of Arizona’s prison population in 2016, while black people accounted for only 4 percent of the state’s population.

Soler said she was surprised to find the percentage of incarcerated people 55 and older in Arizona had increased by 65 percent over the last eight years. Also surprising, she said, was the number of imprisoned people with mental health and substance abuse issues.

According to the report, more than 50 percent of people in Arizona prisons had mental health needs and nearly 30 percent demonstrated a moderate to high mental health need.

In addition, more than 90 percent of people behind bars in Arizona had demonstrated a need for substance abuse education or treatment, while 37 percent had demonstrated an intense need for treatment.

“This is a very vulnerable population and a population that is very expensive to treat,” Soler said. “These are folks that without mental health services or without drug addiction services, they’re not going to be able to re-enter society once they’re out.”

Soler said the report “is intended to be a conversation starter” to bring lawmakers and stakeholders together “to really rethink our sentencing and drug policies moving forward.”

Among the recommendations proposed in the report: reduce the time a person needs to serve for less serious offenses, like drug possession and minor property offenses, by reclassifying them as misdemeanors instead of felonies.

Another recommendation included increasing judges’ discretion to impose alternatives to imprisonment, such as treatment for mental health or drug addictions.

“Many times people end up going to prison when they don’t need to be there,” Soler said. “They need some sort of alternative to prison.”

Montgomery said the recommendations “don’t take into account what’s currently being done within our justice system.”

For example, he said the courts already have “a tremendous amount of discretion” and noted the vast majority of first-time felony offenders are given alternatives to incarceration.

The report was part of a nationwide, multiyear campaign by the ACLU aimed at reducing the number of people in prison in every state by half as well as reducing racial disparities in incarceration.

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Arizona has the 4th highest imprisonment rate in the US