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Guest opinion

Why Arizona's $1.1B mass incarceration crisis should matter more to Garcia, Ducey

A majority of voters in Arizona want formerly incarcerated people to have easier access to jobs and housing, according to a recent poll conducted by the state’s chapter of the ACLU. They want lawmakers to address unjust racial disparities within the system, hold police accountable in cases of misconduct, decriminalize addiction, and send fewer people to prison.

So, how are gubernatorial candidates Doug Ducey and David Garcia proposing to satisfy more than 80 percent of voters who support criminal justice reform? With stale and ineffective policies that will do little, if anything, to reverse the tide of mass incarceration in Arizona, which now maintains the 4th highest incarceration rate in the country

Since the #RedforEd walkout ended in May, the governor’s race has focused almost entirely on sustainably funding Arizona’s failing public education system—which is certainly worth the debate it has generated. Noticeably absent from the discussion, however, has been any critical analysis of Arizona’s broken prison system, which taxpayers are funding to the tune of $1.1 billion a year.

While other notably conservative states like Texas, Mississippi and Utah are overhauling their approaches to criminal justice, Arizona is an outlier that continues to double down on tough-on-crime policies. That’s why FWD.us—a bipartisan political organization dedicated to fixing the criminal justice system nationwide—chose to analyze the factors driving Arizona’s mass incarceration crises in a multi-part series of reports.

FWD.us’ first report, released in September, details the high costs of supporting Arizona’s prison population, which has increased by an astounding 60 percent since 2000, even while the state’s crime rates have remained stable. The report ultimately concludes—as did my colleagues at American Friends Service Committee-Arizona (AFSC-AZ) in our 2017 report, Drug Sentencing in Arizona: A Prescription for Failure—that regressive drug sentencing laws are driving Arizona’s incarceration problem.

For example, the incarceration rates for those convicted of “simple drug possession” have increased by nearly 50 percent since 2000. Arizona has some of the harshest, draconian drugs laws in the country, with those convicted serving 40 percent more time than the national average. Long sentences and often inaccessible alternatives to incarceration are fueling an expensive and bloated system that is currently Arizona’s third highest budgetary line item—a fact that remains unaddressed by either gubernatorial candidate.

To be fair, Garcia and Ducey have—at times—expressed support for some post-incarceration interventions. Ducey, for example, has advocated for “ban the box” legislation and greenlighted a pilot program to bolster re-entry services. Garcia, meanwhile, joined three-dozen politicians from across Arizona and made the AFSC-AZ pledge not to take campaign donations from private prison companies and said that, if elected, he would aim to shut down the state’s six private prison facilities.

Bolder initiatives, including expanded drug treatment services and sentencing reform, are what Arizonans need and want. The near bottomless spending on Arizona’s prison system ultimately prevents lawmakers from investing in urgent priorities—including K-12 education.

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Criminal justice reform is clearly on the minds of Arizona’s voters, who recognize that mass incarceration is symptomatic of the state’s deeper ills. It is imperative that our next governor understands that securing a future for Arizona’s youth goes hand in hand with decarcerating the state’s prisons.

Perpetuating an ineffective and bloated mass incarceration system is ultimately only depriving Arizonans of hundreds of millions of tax dollars that could be going towards building a higher standard of living for all.

Tiera Rainey is a program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee – Arizona, which aims to reduce the size and scope of Arizona’s criminal punishment system.

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