Op-Ed: Arizona Needs Real Criminal Justice Reform

Wiki Commons

First published in print by the Arizona Republic
April 5th, 2019

Officer Jack Wilborn (Ret.) 
Speaker, The Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP)

In January, a bipartisan coalition of both liberals and conservatives stood alongside nearly 100 formerly incarcerated people gathered at the Statehouse to make the case for HB 2270, a bill to create fair and just sentencing in Arizona. It was an inspiring day filled with personal stories, powerful policy arguments, and the people most impacted by Arizona’s broken criminal justice system speaking directly to those with the power to change it. 

These are the voices we need, at the moment we need them.

Yet Arizona’s House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Allen decided to ignore these voices for change and instead bow to pressure from the same tough-on-crime prosecutors who got us into this mess. Allen let the legislative hearing deadline come and go without considering HB 2270 and other key reform bills, handing a major setback to bipartisan reform efforts. It is disappointing to see a single lawmaker stymie change that is so urgently needed, and now other leaders, Governor Ducey chief among them, must work to push Arizona forward toward progress on criminal justice.

Arizona has the fourth highest imprisonment rate in the country and taxpayers spend more than $1.1 billion on the prison system every year. Our prison population has grown at an exceptional rate over the past two decades: people are now going into prison twice as fast as they’re moving to Arizona.

The best research shows that alternatives to incarceration are more effective than prison at reducing recidivism and long prison sentences are ineffective at crime control. Yet unlike other states with a record of high imprisonment rates, including such conservative states as Texas and Georgia, Arizona has refused to adopt evidence-based reforms that address the underlying drivers of crime, save taxpayers money, and make our communities safer.

Arizonans from across the political spectrum have seen this evidence and demanded change. Last November, for example, the 111th Arizona Town Hall focused on criminal justice issues and issued robust reform recommendations to reduce Arizona’s reliance on prison. Yet prosecutors continue to block the road to reform.

Take drug policy.

Together with Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery opposes any effort to decriminalize even minor drug offenses and sees prison – rather than more effective solutions such as education, prevention, and treatment – as the linchpin of drug policy. In 2015, the majority of charges in Maricopa County were for drugs. Maricopa County has driven the increase in people entering prison for drug crimes in Arizona; since 2000, the number of people sent to prison in Arizona for drug crimes has nearly doubled, with almost half of this increase from Maricopa alone.

Or take sentencing.

Arizona, which does not have parole, currently requires every state prisoner to serve at least 85 percent of their prison sentence. The result is that people who pose little threat to public safety languish behind bars at enormous public cost when they could be reunited with their families and contributing to the economy. It also removes an incentive for incarcerated people to work for change and redemption.

Montgomery’s office sends people to prison for longer than all other Arizona counties, at an average of nearly five years. (By contrast, La Paz County sends people to prison for an average sentence of 2.7 years.)

Now Arizona spends nearly $215 million per year, or $588,655 per day, to incarcerate people whose most serious charge is a drug offense.

Our justice system relies on cruel, outdated, and expensive prosecutorial practices that have made Arizona a national outlier in our reliance on prison. That approach hasn’t made us any safer. With the exception of New Mexico, all of Arizona’s immediate neighbors — Utah, California, Colorado, and Nevada — have simultaneously lowered their crime and imprisonment rates with evidence-based reforms that have been proven to safely reduce incarceration.

Governor Ducey, it’s time for Arizona to join the rest of the country in adopting evidence-based reforms. Let’s leave Montgomery’s regressive and failed policies where they belong -- in the dustbin of history. 

Officer Jack Wilborn (Ret.) spent his law enforcement career serving Glendale, Arizona. He now uses his expertise to advance justice system solutions as a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP).