Nobody Here But Us Chickens: Why are Arizona’s Politicians and Prosecutors Afraid of Sentencing Reform?Thursday, January 19th, 2012
By Guest Blogger Penny Pestle, firstname.lastname@example.org
Years and sometimes decades after ignoring safe and cost-effective sentencing reform in states across the country, Arizona’s politicians and prosecutors are afraid…very afraid. They fear changes they should have made a long time ago.
Last year, Judiciary chairs Rep. Farnworth and Sen. Gould out-and-out refused to allow any sentencing reform bills to be heard in their committees. It’s the legislative equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling, “LA-LA, CAN’T HEAR YOU!”
And just a couple of weeks ago, Arizona criminal prosecutors published a 514-page hysterical rant about how everybody in prison in Arizona is dangerous and the system is working just fine, thank you. Oh, and our harsh sentencing laws are responsible for the drop in crime rates. Sure. Right.
A little background–
Starting in the late 70s, drug offenses were criminalized like never before and prisons across the country, including Arizona, began to grow…and grow.
In the 1990s, in their infinite wisdom, criminal justice policy-makers in Arizona became even tougher on crime. The Arizona legislature implemented mandatory sentencing, requiring that judges follow specific guidelines. They also put into place truth-in-sentencing, better called “you must serve at least 85% of your sentence, regardless of good behavior, advanced age, incurable disease or other common-sense reasons for reducing sentences.”
Not surprisingly, in the 30 years from 1980 to 2010, Arizona’s population doubled; during that same time, our prisons grew ten-fold. Our costs to incarcerate nearly 40,000 people have increased dramatically. This growth has encouraged ever more rapacious private prison companies to put the pressure on politicians, whose campaigns they help fund, to support more private prisons.
Fast forward to FY 2012.
Prison costs represent 11% of Arizona’s general fund expenditures. The Department of Corrections is the only state department to increase their budget. All this while children’s health care, K-12 education, higher education and a myriad of social programs are slashed.
The handwriting is on the wall…something’s gotta give and that something is the cost of corrections and the number of people on prison. So, in the 2011 session, Arizona’s legislators hit on the idea of cost-shifting to the counties, by passing a law that all prisoners with less than a year will serve their time in county jails. Only the notorious Sheriffs Arpaio of Maricopa County and Babeu of Pinal County like this idea…because it increases their power. Pretty much all other county officials hate the idea and it looks like the law will be revoked.
What can right-minded policy-makers do? They can follow the lead of “Right on Crime”, the unlikely sentencing reform movement of conservative luminaries. Their ranks include Grover Norquist, William Bennett, Jeb Bush and the ever-popular Newt Gingrich. These men are simply following the lead of numerous red states that have followed the lead of progressive states who have wised up to sensible sentencing reform.
So back to why politicians and prosecutors are afraid of sentencing reform?
They are afraid to admit that highly-touted policies aren’t working. They are afraid that constituents will think they are soft-on-crime, even though sensible reform has succeeded in conservative states and is producing documented results. They fear losing power. Under our current structure, the prosecutors hold all the chips and call the shots. They don’t want to give back power back to judges–the judiciary is not popular among conservative legislators and their cronies.
Hard evidence of this fear includes the massive report commissioned by APAAC, the professional association and mouthpiece for prosecutors. This report is a rehash of a shorter and equally misleading report APAAC commissioned last year which uses hundreds of pages of analyses, graphs, statistics, and trend lines to reinforce the idea that prisons hold many people who are prone to violence and that the status quo is dandy.
To paraphrase Shakespeare: the prosecutors doth protest too much.
As for the legislature, so far it appears that Ron Gould, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and his counterpart in the State House, Eddie Farnsworth, are assuming the same stance as last year, refusing to hear sentencing reform bills. If they don’t like a bill, they don’t have to vote for it. But keeping it from being heard is nothing more than cowardly political bullying. These legislators are elected to act in the best interest of the people of Arizona, not special interest groups like prosecutors or private prison corporations.
Let’s hope that our state moves into the 21st century and its criminal justice leadership–prosecutors and legislators–wise up to what they should be doing! A number of sentencing reform bills have been introduced in this session; we’ll be writing more about them in the future: stay tuned.