On March 30, 2010, the Arizona Prosecuting Attorney’s Advisory Council (APAAC) released a report entitled “Prisoners in Arizona, A Profile of the Inmate Population.” APAAC and numerous high-profile prosecutors have portrayed the report as providing definitive empirical data regarding inmates in Arizona prisons. The report makes the shocking assertion that “the vast majority of current inmates are violent or repeat offenders (94.2%).” It then goes on to credit Arizona’s extremely high incarceration rate (6th highest in the nation) with the recent drop in crime rates.
A closer look reveals that the report contains serious methodological flaws and faulty logic that misinforms the public and elected officials, rather than contributing to a high-level dialogue on this important subject. Chief among them are:
- These numbers are based on combining the numbers of those with repeat offenses—many of which are not violent offenses—with those with violent offenses in order to reach that shocking statistic. The fact that petty criminals and drug addicts have a number of arrests and convictions on their records does not make these low-level offenders dangerous—it merely indicates that our system has failed to rehabilitate or address the root of their criminal behavior. Consequently, this category treats those with homicide priors the same as those convicted of possession of drug paraphernalia.
- APAAC’s report artificially inflates the number of people it classifies as “dangerous, violent, or sexual offenders” by including juvenile offenses. This goes against all common sentencing, court, and correctional practice. In many states, juvenile records are permanently sealed when the individual turns 18.
- In addition, the classification of a “dangerous offender” includes any offense where there was an injury. Hence, this includes situations where the injuries were unintentional and unrelated to the underlying crime. For example, if a police officer sprained his finger while arresting a defendant for forgery, that defendant would be classified as a “violent offender” under this Report, lumped into the same category as an individual who was convicted of premeditated murder.
- The Report also places great emphasis on sex offenses. This category, however, includes individuals who were never charged with a sex offense. For example, if an intake officer at DOC speculates that a defendant forged a check so he could buy pornography, that individual could be considered to have the requisite underlying “sexual involvement “ or “sexual motivation” to be labeled a sex offender under the criteria of this Report.
For a complete debunking of the APAAC report, check out the report, Throwing Away the Key, from Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice (AACJ).
As if the misinformation in the report weren’t concerning enough, it appears that shortly after its release, the Department of Corrections changed the way it calculates and reports the number of “violent” inmates in its monthly “Corrections at a Glance,” a publication that gives a “monthly snapshot” of the prison population, including demographics, county of commitment, intakes and releases, and what offenses prisoners are serving time for.
Previously, the department reported only a list of “Inmate Commitment Offenses,” with the number of prisoners convicted of each. But beginning in June of 2010, there appeared a chart entitled, “Inmate Criminal History,” which presents data for violent offenders, non-violent offenders, those who had served a prior term in ADC (“Repeat offenders”), and those serving their first ADC term.
The national standard definition for violent crime is set by the FBI:
In the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, violent crime is composed of four offenses: murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Violent crimes are defined in the UCR Program as those offenses which involve force or threat of force.
Below is the chart, “Inmate Commitment Offenses” from ADC’s Corrections at a Glance, January 2013.
According to the FBI’s four categories of Violent Offenses, there were only 12,158 “violent offenders” in ADC custody that month. A more generous read of the guidelines incorporating “those offenses which [may] involve force or threat of force” yields a total of 18,626.
Yet the “Inmate Criminal History” chart in the same document reads:
|Prior ADC Prison Term||19,280|
|First ADC Prison Term||20,704
Since the offense categories are so broad, it is safe to assume there may be individuals who fell into a category that appears more or less violent than the actual crime. But even given this substantial margin of error, it is hard to explain how the Department classified an extra 9,887 people as “violent offenders” than their own statistics would support.
Equally curious is the timing of this shift. In addition to coming on the heels of the APAAC report, this new accounting of violent prisoners also just happened to coincide with the downward trend in Arizona’s prison population. The state’s prison population peaked in 2009 at 40,766 inmates. During the subsequent two years, that population declined by an average of 25.5 inmates per month, to a total of 40,154 on October 31, 2011. For Fiscal Years 2012 and 2013 the population basically flatlined.
This was most inconvenient for the state’s proposed prison expansion. A 2010 RFP for 5,000 beds had to be cancelled and reissued for 2,000 beds. In the ADC’s press release, the reason for this was directly attributed to the drop in prison population:
“In fiscal year (FY) 2009 and early FY 2010, ADC, the Governor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting (OSPB), and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC) were forecasting a continued inmate population growth rate of 114 inmates per month based on a history of continuous inmate population growth from FY 2001 to FY 2010. Expecting the prison population to grow to nearly 50,000 inmates by the end of 2016, ADC forecasted a need for an additional 8,500 prison beds, both state-operated and private beds, by the end of 2017.
Since the original legislation authorizing the 5,000 private prison beds, ADC has worked in unison with the Governor and her staff to ensure continued fiscal responsibility in all activities. This includes annually evaluating inmate population growth and bed needs. In FY 2010 and FY 2011 inmate population growth dramatically declined. ADC’s prison population grew by only 65 inmates in FY 2010, and then declined by 296 inmates in FY 2011. FY 2010 and FY 2011 had the two lowest growth rates on record dating back to 1973. Therefore in light of the decline in inmate growth, it was prudent to reassess Arizona’s prison bed plan both in terms of the total number of beds and the types of beds.
As a result, ADC has determined that of the 8,500 prison beds originally identified, only 2,500 are now needed; 2,000 minimum/medium security male beds are scheduled to come online and be operational in FY 2014 and 500 maximum security male beds are scheduled to come online and be operational in FY 2015. Therefore, ADC is cancelling, effective December 22, 2011, the current RFP (110054DC) for 5,000 private minimum/medium security male beds.
To secure the needed prison beds, ADC will request 500 additional maximum state-operated beds and will issue a new RFP for 2,000 private minimum/medium security male beds under the authority of A.R.S. § 41-1609.”
Basic logic would dictate that, given a dramatic drop in prison populations, no new prison beds would be necessary. This press release and the Governor’s executive budget summaries for FY’s 2013 and 2014 indicate a shift in rhetoric from needing more beds to needing certain kinds of beds—medium and maximum security beds, to be exact.
Here’s the rationale as explained in the Governor’s Executive Budget summary for FY2013:
“Growth of Subgroups. The decline in the overall prison population is deceiving, as some of the more challenging segments of the prison population are experiencing significant growth:
• The maximum‐custody population has grown by an average of 12 inmates per month over the past two years. If that rate continues as expected, by March 2013 the prisons’ maximum‐custody bed capacity, using both permanent and temporary beds, will be exceeded.
• The sex offender population makes up 14% of the total prison population, with the majority housed within the medium‐custody level. That population has grown by 4.1% over the last year.
• The protective segregation population is made up of prisoners who must be segregated from the general population as well as from each other because of threats and conflicts due to such issues as religion, race, gang affiliation, type of crime, etc. The population of this subgroup was 791 in FY 2008 and is expected to triple to 2,441 by the end of FY 2012.”
Yet, there was no corresponding increase in violent crime in the same period to explain the increase in this particular prisoner population. The FBI Uniform Crime Reports for 2009-2011 shows a drop in violent crime in Arizona, from 28,128 in 2009 to 26,311 in 2011.
Violent Crime /Rate
The Department of Corrections has complete discretion over which prisoners are placed in protective segregation and a great deal of latitude over security level classification. Many level 5 (maximum security) designations are administrative in nature, as opposed to short-term disciplinary segregation (the classic image of “the hole” from Cool Hand Luke). This includes a high concentration of prisoners with mental health problems, who have trouble following the strict rules of behavior in a prison. These inmates often rack up numerous “tickets” for various infractions, such as not following orders or having verbal confrontations with guards or other prisoners. After amassing a certain number of tickets, these prisoners may have their “score” raised to level 5.
Likewise, the protective segregation population is made up of prisoners who have been threatened by other inmates, renounced gang affiliations, or who have convictions for sexual offenses. It is important to note ADC’s responsibility for creating or maintaining conditions in which violence against such prisoners is so prevalent that they are forced to seek protective segregation. One former prisoner explains the situation this way:
“In addition [protective segregation] yards are used for “problem inmates” that borrow and can’t pay their debts. The #1 reason for inmate to inmate violence is “owing” for store items or drug debts. The root of the problem with inmates “owing” starts with the DOC pay scale which has not increased in over a decade. A good number of people have no financial help from the outside so they rely upon their prison jobs for all their income. Job pay ranges from .10 cents an hour to .50 cents an hour. Yet the “store” prices have increased approximately 300-500% in this time frame. So the inmate buying power has been severely limited as a result.
Inmates must now buy their own hygiene items (toothpaste, tooth brush, soap, shampoo, deodorant, and laundry detergent (level 2 & 3 yards), lamps (light bulbs sold separately) extra socks, underwear, etc…and at the current pay scale purchase of these items is just not possible. So inmates borrow and get into debt. When the debt gets to a certain level the inmate is at risk of being harmed. The inmate then goes to the guards and asks to be moved off the yard and placed in protective custody…
So an inmate that started off owing a debt (usually borrowing basic hygiene items of $20-$40) ends up occupying a prison bed costing tens of thousands more a year to operate (and build).”
Any discussion of such problems in our prisons must address two facts: First, that solitary confinement is both dangerous and harmful to the prisoners held there. And second, that there are more productive ways to address these populations that actually reduce both prison costs and prison violence over the long term: mental health treatment, medical care, improved behavior management, higher staffing levels, and drug and alcohol treatment. If the legislature and Governor are willing to spend as much as $50 million on new prisons, why would they not pursue the cheapest, most effective solutions first?
In other words, the increase in prison beds is a solution in search of a problem.
Building new facilities is a commitment to spending millions more than our already bloated $1 billion corrections budget every year for the foreseeable future. If the prison population continues to drop—as it is in most other states—the state of Arizona could be on the hook for millions of dollars of debt for empty prisons.