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 FWD.us, 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. [FWD.us]
The analysis by FWD.us 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. [FWD.us]
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. [FWD.us]
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 FWD.us. 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. [FWD.us] 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.