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Mon, Aug. 19

Column: Less prison spending leaves more for education

Would our state rather send our kids to prison than educate them? Governor Doug Ducey's budget confirms this with his intention to cut education spending while budgeting for thousands more private prison beds at a cost of $52 million to house nonviolent offenders.

As a private attorney for 42 years I have been involved in federal civil rights litigation against Arizona prison officials, last case concluding in 2013. In this work, I discovered our prison system is the third most costly budget item in the state. Our state has been paying private prisons to house nonviolent offenders for years, with no requirement of reporting and quality assessment. The recidivism rate is greater than ever, making us less safe. Here are some facts:

• As reported by The Blue Street Journal and Arizona Justice Alliance (AAJA), the U.S. spends six times more money on prisons than education and incarcerates five times more inmates than the world average.

• Approximately 10 years ago Arizona spent 40 percent more on universities than on prisons; today Arizona spends 40 percent more on prisons than universities.

• Arizona has the top incarceration rate in the West with 42,000 prison inmates in 2014, three times higher than the comparable population states, Washington and Massachusetts.

• In 20 years, Arizona population increased 100 percent while the prison population increased 1,036 percent, mostly caused by the War on Drugs, with non-violent offenders making up one-third to one half of the prison population.

• According to PEW research in 2013, the Arizona and Maryland crime rate went down by 21 percent in 2013. Maryland's imprisonment rate went down 11 percent. Arizona's rate went up 4 percent.

• A cost comparison performed by AJA in Maricopa County regarding costs of imprisoning and jailing people versus alternatives to prison (drug court, drug treatment, and probation) reports the following costs per person/per year: $22,166 for prison; $23,725 for county jail; $3,309 for drug court; $2,735 for drug treatment; $1,669 for standard probation.

• Changes in our laws - particularly the increases in length of prison sentences - is responsible for the growth of our prison system, not increases in crime.

Republicans and Democrats oppose Ducey's budget and believe prison costs can be cut to allow money for education. Prisons can be run more efficiently without private prison corporations, whose costs are greater, whose recidivism rate is higher, who profit from more nonviolent drug offenders, and who pay no taxes. These corporations have doubled their profits in 2013, while increasing income of CEOs by millions.

The common sense solution is to contact your legislator and urge passage of the following legislation to end our insane love affair with imprisoning non-violent criminals with long sentences:

• Support Sen. Steve Pierce's SB 1390, which was featured in a Courier article and which is struggling now. This bill allows nonviolent offenders to transition out of prison at an earlier date under a treatment program to help them adjust and stay out of prison. Most importantly, this bill, supported by the Maricopa County Attorney, will leave more money for education.

• Change the Arizona Truth in Sentencing law, which requires non-violent offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentences behind bars. Arizona, says the Grand Canyon Institute, is the only state that still has such a law that even applies to first time drug users. Such nonviolent offenders can be placed into supervised diversion programs, such as the one in SB 1390 or other 50 percent earned release programs. It is estimated by AJA that a modest adjustment of this law would potentially allow the release of 9,500 people, with a cost savings of $207,493,375 per year.

The Texas Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry adopted a similar change in 2007 so Texas inmates could be released earlier and placed into alternative treatment programs. As Texas has shown, releasing nonviolent prisoners on treatment programs, not only will cause crime rates and recidivism to go down but save money ($2 billion savings projected for Texas). Likewise, the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, has just issued a report that such reforms would lower prison population and save money.

These changes would allow more funding for public education. They are a way to help close our deficit, preserve public safety, and leave more money for public education. All of which will help our state attract more business, which wants and needs an educated work force. Businesses do not move to a state because it has good prisons. Change is due and we must start now.

Tony Shaw is a longtime resident and Prescott attorney.

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