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Battle Brewing in Arizona over More Lenient Sentencing



Arizona, like many states, is facing a budget crisis. According to two Arizona legislators, one potential area where the state could save money is within the state's prison population. You see, from 1978 to 2008, the state's prison population exploded from 3,377 inmates to more than 40,000. According to these figures, approximately one out of every 170 Arizona residents is behind bars. As a result, the state spends close to $1 billion per year on its prison system. Is it time to trim some fat in an unconventional way?

Rep. Cecil Ash believes that some of the people locked up today should not be there, or should not be there for as long as they have been. (Ash cites a 200-year prison sentence given to a teacher found with 20 images of child pornography on his computer.) Rep. Ash and fellow Rep. Bill Konopnicki believe that portions of the state's criminal code should be reviewed. Specifically, these legislators hope to reduce the length of sentences that judges can hand down in criminal cases. Ash also hopes to revise Arizona laws that require criminals to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before qualifying for parole. He believes a 65 percent requirement is more reasonable.

Not all in the Arizona government share Ash's zeal for more lenient sentencing. State Sen. Ron Gould noted that any changes to the criminal code would need the approval of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he promised would not be forthcoming. Both Gould and a representative of Gov. Jan Brewer stated their belief that more lenient sentencing of convicted criminals was not an appropriate way to deal with budgetary problems. Even if legislation could get past the state senate, a veto by the governor would appear likely.

Options other than reducing sentences have been suggested by the state Auditor General's Office. Removing nonviolent offenders to drug treatment centers, home arrest, and "day prisons" where inmates are allowed to go home at night have been recommended. When the Auditor General's Office reported that approximately 41 percent of those presently incarcerated could be classified as nonviolent... that means the potential cost savings is huge. But, of course, it can't be that simple. A report issued by state prosecutors contradicts this finding and claims that almost 95 percent of inmates either have a history of violence or are repeat felony offenders.

It's Winter 2010, and (for better or worse) it appears that the state Senate and the governor may have the power to prevent any action for now. How long they can afford to prevent it is another issue.