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Posted on: December 28, 2010

Mandatory sentencing is working for Arizona

The following Opinion piece appeared in The Arizona Republic on December 28, 2010 with the following signatories:

Bill Montgomery, Maricopa County Attorney
Daisy Flores, Gila County Attorney
Sheila Polk, Yavapai County Attorney
Carlyon, Navajo County Attorney
Whiting, Apache County Attorney
Vederman, La Paz County Attorney
Rapier, Greenlee County Attorney
Silva, Santa Cruz County Attorney

We agree with one conclusion of Arizona State University associate professor Carissa Byrne Hessick in her Dec. 20 My Turn (“Ariz. sentencing laws should be reformed,” Opinions) that argues for sentencing reform:

“(It) is necessary to prevent unsubstantiated beliefs about the criminal-justice system from stopping the development of sentencing policies that are economically wise and reduce crime.

“In fact, Hessick uses a number of “unsubstantiated beliefs” even after she minimizes the objective report commissioned by the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council. That report concludes that “most prisoners in Arizona have a criminal record or have committed a violent crime.” A substantiated fact, the report reveals nearly 95 percent of inmates have committed multiple felonies and/or a violent felony, including crimes against children or sex offenses and other crimes defined as “dangerous” under Arizona law.

Hessick also presumes that imprisonment is not a particularly effective response to crime, a position not backed by fact. Actually, imprisonment is a pretty darned good response. In Maricopa County, where 65 percent of the state’s population resides, violent and property crime rates fell nearly 29 percent as the number of inmates rose 38 percent from 2004 to 2009.

Another unsubstantiated belief holds that Arizona has one of the highest rates of serious crime despite costly sentencing policies. Look at where Arizona was in 2007 - second in property crimes and third in overall reported crimes per capita. By 2008, well into the use of mandatory sentencing, Arizona dropped to fourth in property crimes and fifth in overall reported crimes. By 2009 (the most recently reported year) we’ve plummeted to 15th in overall reported crimes. And the downward trend continues.

Clearly, since mandatory sentencing began, Arizona has some of the lowest crime rates per capita. We are enjoying the dividends of imprisoning violent and repeat criminals. Accordingly, it’s time to adjust previous assumptions about needing more prisons.

With fewer crimes, there are fewer criminals to incarcerate.

Hessick’s article lacks any discussion of the cost of crime to communities and victims or analysis of the cost vs. savings realized through incarceration. The policies and sponsored legislation from the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office have led to the incarceration of an estimated 3,100 additional offenders from Maricopa County since 2005, according to research models by leading crime economists. These are offenders who would not have been imprisoned otherwise.

The number of felonies by repeat offenders averages just under one per month. Under Arizona’s truth-in-sentencing laws, the average prison sentence is 33 months. Thus we have prevented approximately 98,038 additional crimes in Maricopa County alone. Assuming 90 percent of those deterred crimes (88,234) are to property with an average cost $1,900 each, that works out to a savings of $167 million.

Assuming the remaining 10 percent (9,804) are violent offenses, which are generally estimated to cost $20,000 each, that savings approaches $196 million.

Not only is this proof for the adage “crime doesn't pay,” it supports the corollary - “incarceration saves” - to the tune of $363.7 million.

Moreover, Hessick ignores the environment in which crime is committed in Arizona. The unsecured southern border and an interstate highway network facilitate national distribution of over half of all drugs and human beings smuggled into our nation.

Finally, there is the unsubstantiated belief that the criminal-justice system in Arizona defaults to imprisonment at each and every opportunity. Not so.

Diversion programs and mental health courts are a suggested solution. The fact is, in just the last year, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has offered diversion to more than 4,400 potential felons. And county courts logged approximately 600 mental-health cases. As for the suggestion to enlarge plea bargaining, just over 79 percent of county cases are already resolved this way.

Hessick’s and others’ calls for reform suffer from unsubstantiated beliefs about the criminal-justice system.

Can we find greater efficiencies in how our criminal-justice dollars are spent? No doubt. But should we simply move the cost of crime from one side of the ledger to another and onto the backs of local communities and the future victims of crime? Absolutely not.

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