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Don’t jail low-level drug offenders


Robert Hirsh

During this economic upheaval, our legislators cut spending in almost every area of essential need, including schools, medical care and social programs for children and elderly.

The cuts seem all encompassing except for one sacred area: corrections. Arizona’s prison population continues to grow at an unprecedented rate.

It will increase another 42 percent by 2017, adding 17,000 inmates to the present 40,000, reports the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Unless policymakers act, the increase will require an additional $2 billion to $3 billion in state expenditures over the next 10 years.

Parenthetically, Arizona has a projected $2.4 billion budget deficit expected for fiscal year 2009-10.

As we take funding from health care and schools, we can only wonder whether the trade-off in paying for expanding cells is keeping any of us safer.

As I watch people processed through our criminal justice system heading for long sentences in the Arizona Department of Corrections, it’s clear to me that all of us, including public safety advocates, are getting the worst end of the bargain.

The public defender regularly defends poor people charged with selling minuscule amounts of drugs to police undercover agents.

The police often don’t even know their suspects but simply pick out an unknown person walking or biking in a poor neighborhood.

Frequently the defendant has to ask to use the officer’s cell phone to try to find a seller.

If and when a third person delivers the drug, our client, almost invariably an addict, asks to use part of the drug as his recompense.

If a defendant has a prior felony conviction, and many poor people do, he faces a presumptive mandatory sentence of 9.25 years should he be convicted at trial.

He would not be eligible for probation. Hundreds of cases like these are processed through our justice system.

Twenty percent of Arizona inmates are imprisoned on drug offenses. It costs taxpayers $26,671 per year to house each of them.

Although no one records the quantities of drugs involved in each case, many imprisoned drug offenders are addicts serving years for involvement in small quantity drug transactions.

Upon their release from prison, most return to the same socio-economic circumstances they left. Then, again recycled through drug use and arrest, they pass through the same justice system again.

Recidivism rates have remained fairly constant nationwide at about 67 percent.

Solutions are available, however, to this costly and unfair process.

Pima County Drug Court, through the leadership of the Pima County Probation Office, has been working to help probationers stay clean and change their lives.

In a sample of 6,790 recent drug and alcohol tests, only 18 percent of the drug court probationers were found to be dirty.

For taxpayers, a drug court probationer costs $3.13 a day, compared with $73.07 for a day in prison.

We need to expand the group of people eligible for the drug court process. Mandatory sentences requiring prison time prevent many drug offenders from getting the treatment they need.

To the credit of our County Attorney’s Office, prosecutors recently have been willing to consider plea bargains that provide drug treatment for some. But much more must be done.

For 35 years, criminal justice in Arizona has operated under one paradigm: Make prison sentences tougher.

But no systemic review of Arizonans’ sentences has been conducted to determine whether our system effectively protects public safety.

To be sure, violent, dangerous offenders must be locked up. They are. But these offenders constitute the minority of Arizona prisoners.

Legislators need to start addressing sentencing reform now. They need to find out what works and what doesn’t, rather than continue with the same tired, cookie-cutter perspective that has been used and failed over the past 35 years.

Even in our economic crisis, legislators still are trying to toughen mandatory sentencing statutes to create even longer prison terms.

Instead of worrying about appearing soft on crime, they need to be smart on crime.

We need to reduce prison sentences for low-level offenders and reduce the state’s criminal justice budget. The correlative effect will be increased public safety.

Robert J. Hirsh heads the Pima County Public Defender’s Office.

For taxpayers, a drug court probationer costs $3.13 a day, compared with $73.07 for a day in prison.

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