AFSC in the News

New Report Reveals Truth of the Matter: Arizona Must Change Course on Criminal Justice

Press Contact: Joe Watson
Phone: 602.383.4155


Tucson, Arizona Sept. 26, 2018 — The most recent in a series of reports on mass incarceration in Arizona underscores the conclusion that the state’s existing criminal justice policies are deeply flawed, based on faulty assumptions, and are potentially undermining public safety rather than enhancing it. The report from—which uses data directly from the Arizona Department of Corrections—joins a growing chorus statewide in calling for comprehensive sentencing reform., a bipartisan research and political organization, released the first of three reports addressing mass incarceration in Arizona last week. Arizona’s Imprisonment Crisis: The High Price of Prison Growth is the most comprehensive look at the drivers behind increased incarceration in Arizona, showing that Arizona’s high incarceration rate—the 4th highest in the country—is the result of bad policy decisions and aggressive prosecution, not population growth or rising crime rates.

The data used for the report is the exact same data used in the biannual Prisoners in Arizona reports released by the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council (APAAC). But the conclusions between the two reports could not be more different.

The data from directly contradicts the statements of Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery and other elected prosecutors, who have tried to convince us that a person must work “really hard” to find themselves incarcerated in Arizona. The report lays waste to this argument, citing the fact that the number of people incarcerated for non-violent offenses has grown over 80 percent, and the number of people sent to prison for their first felony conviction has tripled since 2000.

One reason the and APAAC reports are so starkly different is that the author of the latter created his own categorization of “violent offenders” to artificially inflate the statistics by including prior convictions and even juvenile offenses. By contrast, the report uses the nationally accepted standards established by the FBI and Bureau of Justice Statistics, which count violent offenders as those who are currently incarcerated for a violent offense.

As American Friends Service Committee-Arizona (AFSC-AZ) has previously highlighted, a key driver of prison population growth is aggressive prosecution of minor drug offenses. Simple drug possession (not sales or trafficking) is the No. 1 crime for which people are incarcerated in Arizona. The number of people sentenced to prison for this crime has grown 142 percent since 2000. AFSC-AZ’s 2017 report, Drug Sentencing in Arizona: A Prescription for Failure, revealed that drug cases represent the overwhelming majority of charges filed in Maricopa County, with a whopping 45.32 percent of the charges filed for drug possession.

The burden of paying for this exponential prison growth is squarely on the shoulders of Arizona taxpayers. The state pays more than $1 billion a year for corrections, while funding for education, family services, and child safety programs suffer. And with a recidivism rate over 50 percent, taxpayers get a dismal return on this huge investment.

The bottom line: Arizona’s high incarceration rate is not making us safer. In fact, it is hurting the local economy, our families, and our communities.

The Time for Real Solutions is Now

Policymakers have been misled by faulty, manipulated data to double down on a failed tough-on-crime model that even the most conservative states—such as South Carolina, Texas, and Mississippi—have abandoned. Resources invested in evidence-based interventions before people are sent to prison have had greater impact on both prison populations and recidivism rates. These programs are vastly more cost effective than waiting until someone has been dragged through the court process and housed in a prison (at $65/day) before we offer them drug treatment or other services.

Arizona is the only state in the US that applies punitive Truth-in-Sentencing (TIS) laws to non-violent offenders by requiring them to serve 85 percent of their sentences, regardless of good behavior or participation in rehabilitative programming. Studies have shown, time and again, that longer prison sentences imposed under TIS laws do not reduce criminogenic behavior or criminal acts. Moreover, TIS abolished parole for those sentenced after its enactment, meaning incarcerated persons now have no opportunity to gain early release through good behavior or participation in programs.

The result? Arizona has the 4th highest incarceration rate in the country and is over-spending on prisons to the detriment of our schools, businesses, and communities. The time for debate is over—the evidence is overwhelming that Arizona’s current policies and practices are unsustainable and ineffective. In 2019, lawmakers will have a chance to take a different approach, armed with more accurate data and proven roadmaps from other, similarly situated states who have already made significant systemic reforms, resulting in millions saved and steeper drops in crime rates.


American Friends Service Committee-Arizona (AFSC-AZ) works to reduce the size and scope of the criminal punishment system in Arizona using research and documentation, advocacy, and policy reform to advance sentencing reform, halt prison expansion, and improve conditions of confinement.

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