Report on Reforming Justice System Sparks Arizona Debate

Arizona officials agree with a report by the American Bar Association (ABA) that says the nation’s justice system focuses too much on incarceration rather than rehabilitation, the Arizona Republic reported June 28.

Arizona, which is trying to address rising prison costs and prison overcrowding, is exploring the report’s recommendation to repeal mandatory-minimum sentences. Arizona has the highest incarceration rate in the West and the 9th-highest in the nation. Much of the state’s prison growth is a result of incarcerating non-violent offenders.

“We treat them all the same. We just say, ‘Lock ’em up!’ We owe it to ourselves as a society to take a look at these laws and see that what we intended to happen is happening,” said state Rep. Bill Konopnicki (R-Safford), who is leading a state House of Representatives work group in studying Arizona’s sentencing policy and incarceration alternatives.

But others, including victims-rights advocates, suggest that the high prison rate doesn’t necessarily mean the system is broken.

“What they’re proposing is a retreat to a recent past, which both the right and the left found totally unacceptable,” said Steve Twist, a Phoenix attorney and a victims-rights advocate. “Prison rates plummet, crime rates go up. Prison rates go up, crime rates plummet.”

Twist supports mandatory sentences. “It’s tens of thousands of Americans who were not murdered, hundreds of thousands of Americans who weren’t raped and robbed and whose homes weren’t burglarized,” he said. “It’s an enormous savings to the country.”

Konopnicki and other supporters of prison reform suggest that there are alternative punishments that could be more cost-effective, especially for non-violent offenders. Konopnicki said such alternatives could include home arrest or addiction treatment. “Judges need to have more in their arsenal other than incarceration,” he said.

Dora Schriro, director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, also agrees with the ABA’s suggestion that more can be done to rehabilitate inmates.

“No matter how long or short the sentence is, sooner or later virtually everyone who is incarcerated comes home,” she said. “I believe our obligation to the community is twofold: Return felons to the community as ex-offenders who are equipped to be law-abiding and to be good neighbors, but they also need to be productive citizens.”