Reforming Arizona’s sentencing laws for non-violent offenders could save millions of dollars each year and reduce crime rates, according to a new study commissioned by the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice. Guests include AACJ representative David Derickson, an attorney and former presiding criminal judge for Maricopa County.
Ted Simons: According to a report from ASU's College of Law, Arizona's prison population grew almost seven times faster than its general population over the last three decades. From 2001 -2011 Annual spending for the Department of Corrections grew 66% to nearly $1 billion, about 11% of the state budget. That doesn't include the cost of building new prisons. Earlier today Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice released a report the indicates Arizonans could save millions by reforming Arizona's sentencing laws and as David Majure reports they say it could be done without sacrificing public safety.
David Derickson: Arizona's continuing fiscal crisis has focused many commentators, legislators, and taxpayers on the high percentage of the state budget that goes to prisons.
Narrator: At a press conference outside the state capitol today, Arizona attorneys for criminal justice urged Arizonans to consider cost effective ways to reduce it's growing prison population.
David Derickson: We think Arizona's taxpayers want proven criminal justice policies based on facts.
Narrator: Armed with a new report from policy expert Judith Green, AACJ says Arizona should follow the lead of other states.
David Derickson: The Green report asked Arizona to follow what's now considered a proven experiment in other states. New York has reduced its prison population by 19% from 1999- 2009.
Jeremy Mussman: It just makes sense. If you take people in the system and get to the root causes of their criminal behavior, and turn their lives around by giving them the education and job skills so that when they come out they can be productive members of our society, it makes sense to do that, let them out of prison earlier, than to keep them in prison for the entire time without having obtained the skills or education. It promotes the public safety. Statistics show in some states where there's reduced recidivism rates there's been reduced incarceration rates. New York is a primary example of that.
Narrator: We have to wait and see if sentencing reform can gain traction in the state legislature where key members are already on record as opposing such measures.
Ted Simons: Joining me to talk about sentencing reform is Representative Cecil Ash, Republican lawmaker from Mesa. He's made sentencing reform one of his top priorities. And representing Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, David Derickson, a former presiding criminal judge for Marion County. Thank you for joining us.
Ted Simons: The studies in general, this in particular, what's looked at and what's being found?
Cecil Ash: There's a lot of things. One of the objectives we've had is to just examine what's being done in other states. We're seeing that crime is going down in other states and incarcerations are going down. Some states have been able to accomplish a reduction both in the people incarcerated and in the crime rate.
Ted Simons: The states being looked at, are these states similar to Arizona as far as demographics, growth rates, these things?
David Derickson: And even ideology. Texas, as an example, is employing a number of different programs to reduce incarceration and reduce the crime rate. Newt Gingrich has spoken specifically about that particular program. New York, which of course is one of the largest states, has had a significant reduction in incarceration and has had a significant reduction in the crime rate. South Carolina, Mississippi, these are states that you would not expect to be on the forefront of reducing prison populations, and they are.
Ted Simons: Let's talk about some of these ideas. Mandatory sentencing: This gets prominent play here. Reducing mandatory sentences for some nonviolent crimes, what are we talking about here?
Cecil Ash: We're talking low-level drug crimes. Really, any crime where there's not a serious public threat or actual danger. They are crimes such as forgery where nobody's really injured physically. So when physical injury is not a factor, then we can maybe look at other alternatives than to just put someone in prison for a long period of time.
Ted Simons: Can you make a line of demarcation there? That is one of those fuzzier areas that needs to be look at more closely?
Cecil Ash: They always need to be looked at more closely. Where we can make a difference I think is to just give judges more discretion. We have some great judges in the state, and we compensate them for the serious -- for the seriousness of the work they do. We shouldn't tie their hands. That's what I've heard from a lot of judges. They would in many cases like to give a sentence that's different than in the statutes, but their hands are tied and they have to follow the law.
Ted Simons: To some it might seem counterintuitive, getting rid of mandatory sentencing reduces crime?
David Derickson: Well, I don't think we will be reducing or getting rid of mandatory sentencing. There are many terrible, malicious crimes that need to be punished mandatorily. The difficulty is there are a lot of cases where it's unjust to go ahead and impose a mandatory sentence to a person on probation who commits a relatively minor offense, is subject to mandatory imprisonment. Why do we need to send that individual to prison simply because he's committed an offense while on probation? You have to take a look at the offender and the offense and it would be nice to talk to the victim who may be interested in getting restitution back rather than seeing this fellow in prison.
Ted Simons: Let's talk about some of these non prison alternatives then. What are we talking about here?
David Derickson: Well, there are a number of drug programs. We have a huge number of folks in prison who have drug issues, who have alcohol issues. And we need to address that. We have the Probations departments have worked very hard in this area but we knew we had to expand it, we need to understand that serial offenders with drugs need to be treated more than just the first time or the second time with a drug program, but perhaps a third or fourth before they get it. It's a lot cheaper and you can do it without causing any problems with public safety.
Cecil Ash: We can also -- we can impose fines. A lot of people are tax-paying citizens. If they go off to prison for seven years, they lose their house, the family loses their breadwinner many times. They go on ACCCHS and public support. Some of these people could keep working and maybe pay heavier fines, or we could put ankle bracelets on them and restrict their behavior, but also know their whereabouts, those are other alternatives.
David Derickson: That is an alternative not available 30 years ago, 25 years ago. The ability to be able to incapacitate or at least monitor a person intensively with an ankle bracelet makes a tremendous amount of sense, particularly if you've got somebody who really is a wage earner.
Cecil Ash: One of our former Representatives attended a trade show and put on an ankle bracelet. They said, you wear this, and we will tell when you start to have lunch and where you are. He kind of forgot about it, wore it the whole morning. He went back to his hotel with fast food and took a bite of his sandwich. He got a call through the ankle bracelet. You have begun eating in your hotel room. People couldn't do that years ago.
Ted Simons: Let's talk about some folks not too excited about this idea. The Prosecuting Attorneys Advisory Council has a report saying the right people are behind bars. Respond to that -- Right now the right people are there. The people that are there should be there.
Cecil Ash: That's just not the case. I mean, they -- there are many ways to prosecute people. We have the most egregious case in the state, in my opinion, is the case of possession of child pornography, where a former teacher in Glendale received a sentence of 200 years. I read the paper where we have a rapist that was exonerated by DNA testing. But what caught my eye was the rapist received a sentence of 14 years. To compare those two and say one is -- the sentences are disproportionate. It's a waste of taxpayer resources to incarcerate people longer than necessary.
Ted Simons: In general, the right people are behind bars; how do you respond to that idea?
David Derickson: We have 40,000 people behind bars. Darrell Fisher, who wrote the report to which you refer, has stated to a number of people since then there are 5,000 to 6,000 inmates who could be released right now without causing any effect, any negative effect on public safety. I think that's a conservative number. I'm willing to go with half of his number. And I think we'll save millions of dollars in doing so.
Cecil Ash: Let me give you an example. I had a client who was a bicycle thief. He stole a used bike out of an open garage. The value of the bike was probably $200. The plea offer was 10.5 years in prison. We negotiated a plea to eight years in prison. So he may have been guilty, but the sentence was disproportionate to the offense he committed.
Ted Simons: How do you get fellow lawmakers, those who want to be seen as tough on crime, how do you get those folks to say, maybe it's okay to release some of these prisoners and maybe it's a good idea.
Cecil Ash: I think they need to look at the studies that have been done in other jurisdictions. Chris Hessek, professor of law at ASU, showed a study to our sentencing reform committee showing that people don't respond to severe sentences. In most cases people don't even know what the sentence is. They respond to the likelihood of being caught. If we use more of our resources for police and public safety officers, then their presence is going reduce crime more than the severity of a sentence. If you were to ask people what's the sentence for a particular crime, hardly any of these people know.
Ted Simons: How do you convince folks Arizona has crime problem, let's release prisoners, send fewer of them to jail? How do you do that?
Daiv Derickson: Start talking about the fact that Newt Gingrich and Edwin Meece, president Ronald Reagan's attorney general, Grover Norquist, people who are rock-ribbed conservatives that nobody ever accused of having a liberal bone, are now saying they are right on crime that -- which is an organization that Newt Gingrich is the head of at this particular point -- that we can be tough on crime, but we need to be tough on the spending for criminal justice policy. They point out there are people who are going to prison who are -- who will -- the unintended consequence is they are becoming better criminals and in fact are more dangerous when they come out. So we need to look at other alternatives. Incentivizing probation departments to keep people on probation rather than sending them to prison is something that they back. Incentivizing prisoners, if you are on good behavior, if you are going for education, if you are working in prison industries, you can be considered for an early release. Wouldn't that make sense?
Ted Simons: Last question, very quickly: Where does it go from here, as far as pushing this through the legislature?
Cecil Ash: I've dropped several bills that have to do with sentencing reform. We need those bills to be heard, carried and voted upon. That's where we're going.
Ted Simons: Gentleman, great discussion, thanks for joining us.
David Derickson:attorney;Cecil Ash:state representative, Mesa;