Arizona’s Imprisonment Crisis: The High Price of Prison Growth


This article is cross-posted from Fwd.US.

In the last 40 years, prison populations across the nation have skyrocketed. But even compared to this disturbing national trend, Arizona has been an outlier, growing by a multiple of 12 during forty years in which the national prison population quadrupled, according to a new report by Fwd.US.

While Arizona’s resident population has increased over this period, it has not kept pace with prison growth. Since 2000, the state population has grown by 33 percent while the prison population has grown by 60 percent — nearly twice as fast. Crime has also declined over this period, both in total numbers and as a per capita rate. Click here to learn more about why Arizona’s growing prison population cannot be justified or explained by rising crime or demographic trends.

Fwd.US is a group of business and tech leaders committed to meaningful reform and moving America forward.

Today, there are 42,000 people in prison in Arizona.
There are almost as many people in prison as there are students at the University of Arizona. The size and growth of Arizona’s prison population come at an extraordinary cost to families and local economies. As the number of people in prison increases, the number of people who are contributing to their families and their local economy shrinks. This puts a particular strain on families that already have limited resources. A recent report found that the probability that a family is in poverty increases by 38 percent while a father is incarcerated.

The imprisonment rate measures how many people are in state prison for every 100,000 state residents. With the fourth highest imprisonment rate in the country, Arizona trails only Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Mississippi.

As the number of people in prison grows dramatically, so too does the population of people with felony convictions beyond prison walls. According to research conducted in 2010, 1 in 13 Arizonans — or 357,000 people — has a current or prior felony conviction. Each of these convictions limits people’s ability to get jobs, help their families succeed, and become productive, tax-paying citizens. A recent study found that applicants with criminal records were 50 percent less likely to receive an interview request or job offer, compared to identical applicants with no criminal record.

Felony convictions not only affect the individual — they depress the economy at large. National research found that felony convictions led to a near 1 percentage-point reduction in the overall employment rate, leading to as much as $87 billion in lost annual GDP.

As Arizona’s prison population has grown, so has its corrections spending. After adjusting for inflation, state spending on the Department of Corrections — the agency which oversees the state’s prison system — has increased by $280 million since 2000. In fiscal year 2019, the Department’s budget is over a billion dollars.

This massive spending dwarfs other public safety budgets and prevents lawmakers from investing in critical state priorities such as education, public health, and economic development. In the most recent budget, policymakers appropriated more tax dollars to prisons than to universities, child safety, or economic security.

All this spending is not getting Arizona taxpayers the return on investment they deserve. At a time when most states have adopted reforms to curb prison population growth and invest in more effective public safety solutions, Arizona stands out for its continued reliance on long prison sentences and over-imprisonment. In the past decade, 32 states have experienced reductions in both crime and imprisonment — Arizona is not among them. While Arizona also reduced its crime rate during this period, violent crime has fallen twice as fast in those 32 states that also reduced their imprisonment rates as in Arizona during its period of rapidly growing imprisonment.

With the exception of New Mexico, all of Arizona’s immediate neighbors — Utah, California, Colorado, and Nevada — have simultaneously lowered their crime and imprisonment rates. These states have adopted evidence-based reforms that have been proven to safely reduce incarceration. The best research now shows that alternatives to incarceration are more effective than prison at reducing recidivism for most people and long prison sentences are ineffective as a crime control measure.

This is particularly true for the many people in Arizona’s prisons who are there for the first time or were convicted of drug offenses. Studies have shown that prison may actually increase the chances these people will commit another crime and community-based treatment and supervision are more effective responses than incarceration. Prison is also not an effective deterrent for drug abuse or addiction. Recent research by The Pew Charitable Trusts found no statistically significant relationship between imprisonment for drug offenses and rates of illicit use or overdose deaths.

Arizona taxpayers could save hundreds of millions of dollars by bringing the state’s imprisonment rate in line with its neighbors who are getting more public safety at less cost. In fact, Arizona has a similar crime rate to most of its neighboring states but imprisons people at a much higher rate. For example, if Arizona’s imprisonment rate matched Nevada’s, it would save $200 million a year. If its imprisonment rate matched Utah’s, it would save more than $600 million a year, or nearly the full cost of a 20 percent increase in teacher pay across the state.

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