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Former Arizona law enforcement official speaks out for state prison reform

PHOENIX — 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.

Former Chief of Police for the Mesa Police Department George Gascón is advocating for the need of reform for 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.

Gascón, who is now the district attorney of San Francisco, said he believes locking up criminals with a proven history of mental health problems or drug abuse does not help their situation and costs the state hundreds of thousands per year in taxpayer funding.

“When you take those people that are primarily offending because of their mental health problems or drug abuse problems, they do not do better when they’re locked up,” he said.

Law enforcement officials in Arizona tend to avoid the problem when it comes to re-offenders who are locked up for non-violent offenses, Gascón said.

“We actually make communities less safe,” he said. “You lock up people for whatever period of time…and the reason why they went in is still untouched and they go back out into the community. They’re going to re-offend again.”

Gascón said he has implemented several sentencing reform and drug policies in California that have brought hundreds of millions into the state, money that can later be used for community-based supervision to make sure former prisoners are getting the services they need.

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?’”

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