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Arizona prison sentences among toughest for many crimes
Oct. 9, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
Whether it's putting a shoplifter behind bars for three years or a child-porn user away for 200 years, Arizona imposes among the longest, harshest sentences of any state in the country for a wide variety of crimes.
Politically, that has been popular, but the practice carries a hefty price tag. This year, the state will spend more than $1 billion to keep prisoners behind bars, and that figure will balloon if Arizona carries out plans to build or contract for as many as 6,500 new prison beds over the next five years.
Many other states, to cut costs as budget deficits have soared, have adopted sentencing alternatives over the past decade that have slashed their prison populations.
They diverted non-violent offenders into drug- or alcohol-treatment programs, increased tightly supervised probation, and took other steps that experts say save money while helping cut the likelihood that convicts will reoffend.
Nationally, crime rates have been falling for decades. Even with more convicted criminals on the street, many of these states have seen their crime rates fall as far or farther than in Arizona, where the prison population has climbed 50 percent over the past decade.
But those calling for similar reforms here have been unable to persuade Arizona's political leaders to give up their tough-on-crime stance.
"We incarcerate 40,000 people; Washington has a slightly larger population than Arizona and it has 18,000 prisoners," says Rep. Cecil Ash, a Mesa Republican and sentencing-reform advocate. "Bottom line, we're spending a huge amount of money when we have better alternatives."
But Ash has found almost no support in his own party for changing sentencing.
Former House Speaker Kirk Adams says he and most other legislators agree with prosecutors that Arizona's tough sentencing laws are the reason for the state's falling crime rate.
"If we're talking about having some people not go to prison, or letting some out earlier, it's natural lawmakers would want to proceed very, very carefully," he said.
Over the past three decades, Arizona's population has leapt one and a half times to just under 6.4 million people. The state's prison population has grown five times as fast.
In 1980, one out of every 749 people in Arizona was behind bars. Today, it's one out of 159, based on U.S. Census and Arizona Department of Corrections data. Arizona has the highest proportion of people in prison of any state in the West and ranks sixth in the country. The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
One big reason for the high rate across the country, and especially in Arizona, is a series of "tough on crime" and "truth in sentencing" measures that lawmakers began adopting in the 1970s and continue to enact. Those laws have sent more people to prison for longer periods of time.
Arizona politicians from former Gov. Fife Symington to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio have campaigned on the belief that putting more bad guys away for longer keeps communities safer.
But the numbers don't back that up. Despite a high incarceration rate, Arizona also has had some of the highest crime rates in the country, averaging between sixth and seventh among all states and the District of Columbia over the past decade, according to FBI data. A study soon to be released by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission will report that Arizona's murder rate rose last year, and that rape has risen over the last decade, even though both those rates have fallen nationally.
Over the past few years, some two dozen states - including the traditionally punitive state of Texas - have passed sentencing and other criminal-justice reforms, many specifically aimed at cutting prison populations.
Reforms include scaling back or eliminating mandatory sentences, giving judges more discretion in sentencing, creating commissions to study sentencing practices, and adopting so-called "evidence-based practices." These policies encourage probation for non-violent offenders, electronic monitoring and community-based rehabilitation programs. Criminologists credit such reforms for reducing crime and prison populations.
But the Arizona Legislature has moved mostly in the opposite direction, rejecting efforts at sentencing reform. Last session, after being lobbied by Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery and other prosecutors, leaders buried bills by Ash and another member of their own Republican majority who proposed reforms - creating a sentencing commission, expanding rehabilitation practices - similar to those adopted in Texas, Michigan, Kansas and New York. They also rejected a bill for a study of sentencing reforms. Arizona prosecutors and most Republican lawmakers insist that tough sentencing laws are essential to fighting crime by ensuring violent criminals get long sentences that keep them out of society.
Lawmakers did pass bills that increased sentences for child prostitution and sex crimes involving children, and created new crimes relating to human smuggling. Sponsors said the public supports tough measures for such crimes.
Spending on prisons rises
But putting more people in prison for longer is costly. Last year, as the state slashed spending on education, health care and almost every other area, the Department of Corrections was the only agency to see a budget increase.
In 1979, the state spent 4.3 percent of its annual budget on Corrections; this fiscal year, Corrections will take 11.2 percent of the budget. By contrast, over that time period, Arizona's spending on higher education dropped from 19.1 percent of the state budget to 10.5 percent.
The Corrections Department plans shortly to award one or more contracts for up to 5,000 more private-prison beds. The state's auditor general projects that those contracts will cost an additional $585 million over the next five years. And if further planned expansions to add 1,500 more prison beds go ahead, those would add nearly $400 million more in spending over the next five years, according to the auditor general.
Those kinds of mounting costs have led leaders in other states to push for sentencing reforms, saying it isn't a question of being soft or hard on crime but of being smart on crime.
"We recognize the need to have public safety, but at the same time we have to make the best use of our money," said Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden, who spearheaded a series of bills in his state that diverted people from prisons into mental-health, alcohol- and drug-treatment programs, increased community supervision and the use of electronic monitoring for non-violent offenders. Those changes are credited with reducing the need for thousands of prison beds.
"When I arrived at the Legislature, I had one message from my speaker: 'Don't build new prisons; they cost too much,' " Madden said.
The new treatment programs and other measures cost $241 million but saved far more. Texas scrapped plans to spend $523 million on new prisons in 2008 and 2009, and saved $36 million a year it had been paying to house prisoners in county jails. The changes also helped cut the recidivism rate. Madden notes that treating underlying mental-health, drug- and alcohol-addiction issues helps remove some of the triggers that lead to crime.
Travis Pratt, a criminologist and criminal-justice professor at Arizona State University, believes cost issues will eventually drive change in Arizona, too.
"Most states that have started to back off from the get-tough approach haven't done so because of some ideological shift; they've done so because they're broke," Pratt said. "They don't want to be less punitive, but they recognize that they've hit the fiscal limits of that agenda.
"Arizona will eventually hit that. It will become too expensive to maintain one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation."
While "policy makers found long ago that there's political capital to be gained by being tough on crime - the same philosophy that gets Arpaio elected and re-elected - that's not at the top of the political agenda anymore," Pratt said. "Now it's all about the economy, jobs, health care. Crime is slipping down the list, and policy makers won't get the same political capital out of the issue as they did in the past."
Others aren't so sure.
"We see a lot of pushback, even against things we know will work here, because right now the system is very favorable to prosecutors . . . and the benefits of sentencing reform are more difficult to see, so politically it's a tough sell," said ASU law professor Carissa Byrne Hessick, who has worked on sentencing-reform proposals.
"The prosecutors in this state seem to be well-organized, and they're very opposed to any sentencing changes," agreed Donna Hamm, a prison-reform activist and former state judge. "Judges don't have a lot of power over the length of sentences . . . there are a lot of mandatory minimums that have to be imposed. So the prosecutors are really driving that engine, because they decide which charges will be filed and which ones won't be."
Kim MacEachern, staff attorney for the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys' Advisory Council, agrees with Hamm on one point: Prosecutors see no need for change.
"When we look at who is in prison, we believe the right people are there," she said. "And that has to be playing a role in the decrease in the crime rate."
Most criminologists, however, don't agree with that assessment.
"The research shows that incarceration is way overrated in terms of its ability to control crime. The ups and downs in the crime rate have a low correlation with incarceration rates," said Mona Lynch, director of the Center in Law, Society and Culture at the University of California-Irvine. Five other criminologists interviewed for this story agreed with Lynch, saying that scores of studies have shown that it's possible to lock up fewer people while still cutting crime.
A 2010 analysis of more than 400 studies for the National Institute of Corrections found not only that the longer the sentence, the more likely a convict is to reoffend, but that rehabilitation succeeds far more often in a community rather than prison.
Arizona has had a well-deserved reputation for handing down tough sentences since territorial days. But beginning in 1978, state lawmakers began to adopt an ever-wider variety of laws that increased the number of crimes, imposed harsher penalties and reduced the ability of judges to use their own discretion in handing down sentences or revoking probation.
Much of this coincided with nationwide sentencing trends, but as Lynch, the criminologist, describes in her book, "Sunbelt Justice," Arizona led rather than followed in tightening the screws.
These changes included, in 1978, presumptive sentencing, which imposed specific ranges of sentences for each type of crime. The idea was to make sentencing more consistent, but the change also put more power in the hands of prosecutors, who decide what violations to charge. Another change, mandatory sentencing, imposed specific longer sentences and eliminated the option of probation for violent crimes, sex offenses, repeat offenses and certain drug and DUI crimes.
Under those laws, in 1988, Jay Martin Jonas of Bisbee was sentenced to 25 years in prison for selling a marijuana cigarette, for a dollar, to a 14-year-old juvenile delinquent. He got 22 1/2 years more tacked on for agreeing to fence a handgun the boy had stolen. Jonas, then 21, had a prior felony, so the two sentences were imposed consecutively without any possibility of parole.
On appeal, Arizona Supreme Court Justice Robert Corcoran, writing for the majority, noted that Jonas' sentence "is among the harshest in the nation," but he upheld it. In his dissent, Justice Stanley Feldman replied, "Actually, it's the harshest. Arizona is the only state that would or could incarcerate a first-time seller of one marijuana cigarette to twenty-five years in prison without parole to be served consecutively to any other sentence imposed."
Jonas' attorney eventually won him some relief. He was released last year, after serving 22 1/2 years in prison.
"Sometimes," said Feldman, now in private practice, "common sense tells you a thing is so unjust it violates the Eighth Amendment," which bans cruel and unusual punishment. He said Arizona's criminal code can and does result in sentences that are "counterproductive, unjust and create too much expense."
Prosecutors wield more power
In 1993, Arizona adopted "truth in sentencing" laws. These abolished the ability of parole boards to award early release for new crimes. They required offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for community supervision; and required serving 100 percent of the sentence for many felonies. Before, inmates typically had been eligible for parole after serving from half to two-thirds of their sentences. While most states adopted "truth in sentencing" laws for violent crimes, Arizona was one of only four to impose the rules on non-violent crimes.
Another change greatly reduced the option to let sentences run concurrently, as most states allow, when someone is convicted on more than one charge. It made consecutive sentences the default option and mandated them for certain crimes, including most crimes against children.
For Phoenix teacher Milton Berger, who was convicted in state court in 2003 on 20 counts of possession of child pornography, each with a mandatory minimum of 10 years, the consecutive-sentencing rule put him behind bars for 200 years with no parole. If Berger, now 61, reaches the median life expectancy for a man his age - 81 - Arizona taxpayers will spend more than half a million dollars to keep him in prison. Berger took his chances at trial because the plea bargain he was offered - 40 years with no parole - would essentially have been a life sentence.
In contrast, Deewayne Bowdoin of Willcox was prosecuted in U.S. District Court in Phoenix for possession of child pornography last year. He received five years in federal prison, "a just sentence for his role in the sexual exploitation of children," said then-U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke.
Critics say Arizona's mandatory-sentencing laws, meant to provide consistency, instead have moved discretion out of the hands of judges and into the hands of prosecutors, giving them enormous leverage to pry plea bargains from those accused and resulting in huge disparities.In the last fiscal year, plea bargains accounted for 95.6 percent of all felony criminal convictions in Maricopa County; only 1.6% of felony criminal cases filed went to trial, according to court records.
"Sentencing is nearly all done by plea bargaining instead of before a judge in open court," said Pima County Public Defender Robert Hirsh. "The deal is always driven by the risk of a higher sentence."
In 2009, William Johnson was charged in Maricopa County with felony shoplifting. To avoid a sentence of 10 years at trial, he agreed to plead guilty and received three years in prison for stealing a $3 bottle of wine. The plea bargain was considerably longer than the norm for similar crimes in most states, say defense attorneys.
States cut costs, decrease crime
While many states went down the same sentencing path as Arizona, in recent years most have walked back from such practices. Even the few states with higher incarceration rates than Arizona, such as Mississippi and Texas, saved money by cutting prison populations while also seeing deep drops in crime.
New York cut its prison population by 20 percent over the past decade, and New Jersey by 19 percent, while both states saw overall crime rates fall by similar rates as in Arizona and violent crime rates fall farther. Both states scaled back mandatory sentences for drug offenses and gave judges more discretion to send offenders into drug-treatment programs.
Mississippi, in 2008, brought back parole and scaled back mandatory sentences for a variety of non-violent offenses, retroactive to 1995. Over the next year, the state released more than 3,000 prisoners on parole an average of 13 months sooner, saving more than $40 million. Mississippi also saved roughly $12 million a year by expanding the use of home arrest with electronic monitoring. Its crime rate fell nearly 7 percent.
Many other states, including Georgia, Kansas, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina and South Carolina, have taken similar measures. Across the country, crime rates have been dropping for years, even as "we see an increasing trend of states turning to alternative sentencing measures and reforms," said Judith Greene, director of Justice Strategies, a non-profit group that studies incarceration policies. Like ASU's Pratt, she said the budget crisis has been an impetus; but with the declines in crime "people are a little less ready for the kinds of old, knee-jerk solutions proposed when crime was rising and people were feeling a desperation about what to do about it."
After peaking in October 2009 at just under 40,800, Arizona's prison population has dropped by about 700 inmates; officials say changes in probation practices are sending fewer people back to prison for minor infringements of probation.
Arizona's auditor general, in an audit last year, said the state could cut its prison growth by adopting sentencing reforms other states have put in place, and by expanding who is eligible for the diversion program voters created in 1996 through Proposition 200. Except for methamphetamine users, who are excluded, that proposition requires first- or second-time non-violent drug offenders to be put on probation and sent to a treatment program instead of prison. A 2006 Arizona Supreme Court study estimated this measure keeps more than 1,000 people a year out of prison, at an annual savings of about $11.7 million. ASU's Hessick said extending the program to meth possession could save $6 million a year more.
State legislator Ash said he plans to propose sentencing reforms again next session, for the fourth year in a row.