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There has to be a better way

Citizen Staff Writer



They never stop coming – five or six new ones every day, entering already overcrowded Arizona prisons.

Day after day, week after week, they are packed in. Inmates come and inmates go, but every month there are 150 to 200 more Arizona men and women behind bars.

There now are 40,000 people in Arizona prisons, and we’re paying 10,000 state employees to watch them. At the rate we’re going, by 2015 there will be 60,000 people locked up in Arizona.

If all the inmates now in Arizona prisons were in a single place, it would be the 13th-largest city in the state.

There has got to be a better way.

Incarceration is phenomenally expensive – costing a little over $1 billion in the fiscal year that begins July 1. That works out to $115,000 per hour – 24 hours a day – to keep people locked up.

The cost is so high that last year, the budget had to have a special addition to pay for the extra day in leap year.

And that doesn’t include the cost to build prisons. There are 8,000 more inmates than beds in Arizona, so Corrections officials say they need $179.3 million next year to build more cells.

While all this is going on, Arizona schools – from kindergarten through universities – are begging for scraps. And they’re largely being ignored.

The comparison between the amount we spend locking people up and the amount we spend educating them is stark. Between 2006 and 2010, state spending for running prisons increased 45 percent. In the same period, state spending for the University of Arizona decreased 14 percent.

There has got to be a better way.

Wednesday, thousands of people, including students from UA and the other universities, descended on the state Capitol to urge legislators not to make crushing cuts to the university system. There have been previous protests by school administrators, parents and others fighting proposed draconian cuts to K-12 education.

But the money keeps getting shoveled into the state Department of Corrections – money that is not available for education, health care, building roads and other state needs.

Robert Hirsh, Pima County public defender, is among those who says it has to stop. “We’re in crisis in Arizona. We don’t have the money to continue this stupidity,” he said during a recent debate about state sentencing laws.

Nationally, Arizona trails only nine states in the percentage of its residents in prison, according to a report by The Pew Center on the States.

There has got to be a better way.

Who is in prison? The Department of Corrections says about 4 in 10 are in for a violent crime. About an equal number are in for property crimes or drug offenses. The rest are locked up for other crimes, including DUI.

They will get out. Less than 4 percent of the inmates are in for life.

Other states have found that locking up fewer people does save money and doesn’t make the communities unsafe. New York state, for example, has a population three times that of Arizona but has only 66 percent more prison inmates.

As Arizona keeps sending more and more people to prison, New York is sending fewer. There are 9,000 fewer inmates in New York prisons today than there were a decade ago.

That’s a huge savings for taxpayers. New York spends about 5 percent of its state budget on prisons; Arizona spends more than twice that percentage, leaving far less money for schools and other things.

And here’s the bottom line that really counts: Although a smaller percentage of people are locked up in New York, you’re much safer there. The FBI says the violent crime rate in Arizona is 15 percent higher than it is in New York.

So what is the point?

As Arizona legislators look for ways to balance the budget, they’re going after the cuts that don’t require a lot of thinking: universities, schools, insurance for children of low-income parents.

The prison budget will continue growing.

There has got to be a better way.

Mark Kimble appears at 6:30 p.m. Fridays on the Roundtable segment of “Arizona Illustrated” on KUAT-TV, Channel 6.

He may be reached by e-mail at mkimble@tucsoncitizen.com or by calling 573-4662.

There has to be a better way

Other states have found that locking up fewer people saves money and doesn’t make communities unsafe.

Incarceration rates

Number of prison inmates per 100,000 residents


Louisiana 1,138

Georgia 1,021

Texas 976

Mississippi 955

Oklahoma 919

Alabama 890

Florida 835

South Carolina 830

Delaware 820

Arizona 808


West Virginia 443

Nebraska 421

Iowa 412

North Dakota 359

Massachusetts 356

New Hampshire 319

Vermont 317

Rhoda Island 313

Minnesota 300

Maine 273

Source: The Pew Center on the States, “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008″

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