Thursday, April 22, 2010

Arizona Bucks Trend, Will Build More Prisons

Ten-percent of Arizona's entire state budget in spent on locking up criminals. As most of the state budget faces unprecedented constriction, Arizona plans to expand its prison budget.

Arizona plans to add 15,000 prison beds over the next 10-years. According to the Arizona Republic, the projected rate of prison growth is 114 inmates per month over 10-years. Over the last decade, Arizona experienced a 30-percent increase in state residents and a 50-percent increase in prison population.

Arizona's extraordinary prison growth comes into focus when you compare their prison growth with another "law and order" state. In the last decade, Texas grew by 20-percent and it's prison's grew by only 4-percent. In fact, in 2009, prison population fell nationwide. Arizona was one of only 22 states to show prison growth in 2009.

Arizona has approximately 40,000 prisoners. The state pays 40-percent more per day to house prisoners than Texas. According to the Republic, Texas is spending less and incarcerating fewer inmates based on a three prong approach to punishment:

1. Enhanced treatment for addicted inmates;
2. Deferring technical parole violators to community detention;
3. Providing transitional services for inmates leaving prison.

My Take

Arizona's plan to build more prisons appears to be out of step with most other jurisdictions. Arizona joins Pennsylvania as the only other state considering dramatic prison expansion during these difficult economic times. What price are Arizonians willing to pay to lock up more of the their own? The state already spends 1 out of every 10 dollars on prisoners.

Arizona has a truth in sentencing statute that requires every offender to serve at least 85-percent of their maximum sentence. Although, Arizona would do well to study some of the successes of other states in reversing prison trends, real reform would have to include a review of the states sentencing structure.

It is misguided to think that a state can control prison population by tinkering only with treatment and parole. Policymakers can tweak parole and treatment options without a lot of fanfare. Overhauling sentencing schemes is a little more risky. A legislator could easily be perceived as "soft on crime" if she proposed a modification to truth in sentencing.

Unfortunately, what is best for the state seems to run a distant second to getting re-elected. In Arizona, being "soft on crime" is tantamount to political suicide.

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