We have the highest rate of any western state, including California. That’s not something we should be proud of. In a state where the Governor and Legislature continue to slash our education budget, the cost of the Department of Corrections has increased by 67% since 2003. Today it absorbs over 11% of our entire state General Fund and is the 3rd highest agency share of the budget. That’s not sustainable economically, and it makes no sense from the standpoint of reducing future crime.
In Arizona, we have a perverse incentive to put people in prison. Why? Because the state is beholden to the private prison industry, and the contracts that guide that relationship rely on beds in prisons being filled. Conservatives cry foul when it comes to big government, and yet the prison industry is big government on steroids. Follow the money to campaign contributions and you just might find the answer as to why this nonsensical system continues to exist.
In recent years even conservative states such as Mississippi and Texas have embraced prison and sentencing reform. In fact, in 26 states across the nation where reforms have been implemented, prison populations have dropped by nearly 30,000, despite overall population increases. Being creative makes economic sense. And being creative makes sense from the standpoint of social equity.
I believe we can – no, I believe we must immediately begin a statewide conversation about reversing the unhealthy trend that exists in Arizona towards populating our prisons. Judges must be given the liberty to consider alternatives to incarceration. Mandatory sentencing laws must be reforemed. Non-violent offenders must be given the opportunity to stay employed, and to stay connected with their families. But making those changes legislatively is an uphill fight as long as the private prison industry is buying our legislature. Changes in sentencing are going to have to come through the will of the people, expressed through initiative at the ballot box.
In the very immediate future, I will be working with a multi-partisan advisory committee to discuss how we can get such an initiative onto the 2016 ballot. This is not a partisan issue. It’s an economic issue, and it’s a human rights issue. This is an issue that speaks to keeping people on the job, keeping families in tact, and treating non-violent offenders in ways that will reduce the likelihood they’ll simply enter a revolving door at the prison gates.
Through the cuts to education funding, and the increases to funding the Department of Corrections, our state leaders have sent the message that they’ve given up on our kids. Less room in classrooms, but more room in jail. Many of us don’t share that view. I look forward to working on this critical issue in the days ahead. Maintaining the status quo is a recipe for continued economic and social disaster. We can do better. If the politicians won’t lead, the people must. And we will.