Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

As overdose deaths climb, Arizona fills prisons with people charged with low-level drug offenses

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: As overdose deaths climb, Arizona fills prisons with people charged with low-level drug offenses

  • Pennsylvania prisons hired a private company to intercept and store prisoners’ mail

  • Capital punishment in the United States: Explained

  • Police chief fires Dallas officer who killed unarmed man in his own apartment

  • 18 exonerations in Chicago

  • Facebook tells Memphis police to end use of fake accounts

  • Fines and fees collection gets in the way of addressing serious crime

In the Spotlight

As overdose deaths climb, Arizona fills prisons with people charged with low-level drug offenses

Since 1980, Arizona has sent people to prison at a rate that dwarfs the national average. Across the country there were four times as many people in prison in 2016 as there were in 1980 but, according to a new report by, in Arizona there were 12 times as many. Only three other states—Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Mississippi—imprison more of their residents. And while sending fewer people to prison for nonviolent and drug offenses—though insufficient on its own—is seen as the low-hanging fruit in addressing the nation’s incarceration crisis, Arizona is on the opposite trajectory, with the vast majority of people in its prisons there for nonviolent and drug convictions. Just since 2000, a period during which crime has gone down by 20 percent in the state, felony filings went up 26 percent and the number of people in prison grew 60 percent. The prison population is projected to continue growing. []

The analysis by looks at who is in prison in Arizona and why. The report paints a picture of a system that has become increasingly punitive “as a result of policy and practitioner choices”—sending more people to prison, for less serious offenses, for more first felony convictions, and for a longer time. Two-thirds of people in the state’s prisons are there for nonviolent convictions. Forty percent were sentenced to prison on their first felony conviction. Meanwhile, more than 30 states have achieved declines in violent crime at twice the rate of Arizona while reducing the number of people incarcerated. []

The report identifies several causes: the passage of a 2006 ballot measure that allowed judges to sentence people to prison for a first or second conviction for possession of “dangerous drugs,” sentences that are 25 to 100 percent longer than sentences in other states, a “repetitive offender” sentencing enhancement, and a “truth in sentencing” law that requires people to serve a minimum of 85 percent of their sentence in prison. Arizona’s imprisonment explosion has been powered by the incarceration of people charged with drug crimes. More people now go to prison in the state for drug convictions alone than for all violent convictions combined. And the sentences for even the least serious felony drug offenses are exceptionally harsh: The average sentence for drug possession in Arizona is close to the average sentence nationally for the more serious crime of drug production and manufacturing. []

This month, the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, as part of its 50-State Blueprints, also issued an analysis of the “primary drivers of incarceration” in Arizona and policy proposals to cut the number of people in prison in half while also reducing racial disparities. The findings resembled those of Latinx Arizonans have been the hardest hit by Arizona’s policies: The state also has the highest rate of Latinx imprisonment in the country, and Latinx men accounted for 40 percent of the prison population in 2016, though only 27 percent of the overall state population. The ACLU’s proposals for cutting the prison population and addressing racial disparities include reforming mandatory minimum sentencing laws and reclassifying certain drug possession charges as misdemeanors instead of felonies.  [ACLU Smart Justice]

Just last year, the American Friends Service Committee-Arizona also took a close look at Arizona’s harsh sentencing regime against the backdrop of the unfolding opioid epidemic. Opioid overdose deaths in the state climbed 74 percent between 2013 and 2017. While Governor Doug Doucey declared the opioid epidemic an emergency, genuine movement toward a treatment-based approach is not possible while so many people struggling with opioid use are being sent to prison. [Rebecca Fealk and Caroline Isaacs / American Friends Service Committee-Arizona]

AFSC-Arizona looked closely at three counties, including Maricopa, the state’s largest county, which was responsible for the majority people sent to prison, according to 2015 numbers. Drug cases were the overwhelming majority of cases brought in Maricopa County. Of the 10 most commonly brought charges, eight were for offenses involving alcohol and drugs, like possession, use, or paraphernalia, not for sales or trafficking. [Rebecca Fealk and Caroline Isaacs / American Friends Service Committee-Arizona]

Arizona has budgeted $1.1 billion for its prison system in 2019, more than it spends on universities or child safety. But next to none of the vast corrections budget is spent on substance abuse treatment for people who are incarcerated: 78 percent of people in prison report are in need of moderate or intensive substance abuse treatment, but only 3 percent are in treatment at any given time. []  The “treatment gap” between those in need of substance abuse treatment and those who receive it could be closed if some of Arizona’s spending on prisons, which are filled with people convicted of drug offenses, was spent on treatment services instead. [Rebecca Fealk and Caroline Isaacs / American Friends Service Committee-Arizona] Meanwhile, opioid-related overdose deaths climbed 20 percent from 2016 to 2017 in what state officials have described as a crisis.

Stories From The Appeal

A screenshot of a MailGuard advertisement that shows how employees process prisoner mail.

Pennsylvania Prisons Hired a Private Company to Intercept and Store Prisoners’ Mail. The company is being paid $4 million a year to open and scan prisoners’ mail into a searchable database. [Raven Rakia]

Capital Punishment in the United States: Explained. We updated this topic in our Explainer series, in which Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpack some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. [Jessica Brand and Callie Heller]

Stories From Around the Country

Police chief fires Dallas officer who killed unarmed man in his own apartment: Dallas Police Chief U. Renee Hall has fired Amber Guyger, the police officer who killed Botham Jean while off duty and claimed she had mistaken Jean’s apartment for her own. Guyger was fired for “adverse conduct” according to the department’s news release. She had been on administrative leave since fatally shooting Jean on Sept. 6 and was released on $300,000 bond after being charged with manslaughter. Hall, who had issued statements last week explaining why she could not fire Guyger, said the “critical portion” of the criminal investigation into Guyger’s actions had now been concluded, allowing her to terminate Guyger. [Dana Branham / Dallas Morning News] See also A Dallas Morning News columnist looks at the cases of police officers terminated for misconduct only to be later returned to service by a civilian board. One police officer was fired for excessive force twice and rehired twice, including as recently as last year.

18 exonerations in Chicago: The drug convictions of 18 men were vacated yesterday in what the Chicago Tribune called “a historic hearing.” The convictions were all linked to former police sergeant Ronald Watts whom the men accused of falsely arresting them when they “refused to pay him protection money, sell drugs for him or let him steal weapons.” Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx issued a public apology to the men after the hearing. Watts was ultimately arrested in 2012, after multiple investigations, and sentenced to 22 months in prison on federal charges. So far, 42 people arrested by Watts and his team have had their convictions vacated. The state’s attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit is reviewing another 30 to 40 cases, and lawyers for the men who have been exonerated plan to review more of the hundreds of convictions that stemmed from arrests by Watts and his team. [Elyssa Cherney / Chicago Tribune]

Facebook tells Memphis police to end use of fake accounts: Facebook explicitly prohibits the use of fake profiles, but police use them anyway. In July, The Appeal reported on the Memphis police department’s use of a “Bob Smith” account to connect to local Black Lives Matter activists and spy on them. Following this report, the Electronic Frontier Foundation contacted Facebook and the company deactivated the “Bob Smith” account and another six fake accounts managed by Memphis police. Facebook also sent a letter to the department asking it to “cease all activities on Facebook that involve the use of fake accounts or impersonation of others.” The company’s Information for Law Enforcement Authorities page has been updated to include the prohibition on fake accounts, but that seems unlikely to serve as a deterrent. At a 2016 training for prosecutors, a presenter said law enforcement could use fake profiles, saying, “even though it violates the terms and policies of Facebook the evidence may still be used in court.” [Dave Maas / Electronic Frontier Foundation]

Fines and fees collection gets in the way of addressing serious crime: An article in Urban Affairs Review looks at the relationship between municipal revenue from fines and fees and the police clearance rate for cases. The researchers studied the finance data and crime data for 6,000 cities for two years. Writing in the Washington Post, the study’s authors discuss their finding that police departments that collect a greater share of revenue from fines and fees are less effective at solving violent and property crimes. In smaller towns, with smaller departments, the link was especially clear: “Higher revenue from fees and fines meant fewer violent crimes solved.” The result is the “dynamic of simultaneous overpolicing and underpolicing” familiar to many—police intent on revenue collection while ignoring serious crime. [Rebecca Goldstein, Michael Sances, and Hye Young You / Washington Post]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

The Appeal in Your Inbox

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.