Debunking the pervasive myths that have blocked sentencing reform in Arizona

Last month, the nation recognized National Crime Victims’ Week, an annual event embraced by policymakers at every level of government in the hopes of highlighting the progress made and progress sought on the pursuit of justice for survivors of crime. Fittingly, the following week we observed National Correctional Officer and Employee Appreciation Week. Other than falling one after the other on a calendar for recognition, these two groups of people — survivors of crime and those tasked with rehabilitation — have interactions with perpetrators of crime.

I believe it’s important that our society takes a look at many of the pervasive myths about criminal sentencing, especially in regards to what works and what doesn’t both for reform and for rehabilitation. It’s a critical conversation to have, particularly in connection to how the impacts of sentencing affect crime rates and public safety, what reforms actually mean, and how reforms will keep our communities safer.

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Harsh sentencing laws do not decrease crime rates

Data shows that longer sentences neither reduce nor deter crime. Numerous states that made significant reforms to their sentencing laws actually saw greater decreases in crime over the same time period. Unnecessarily harsh sentences are a lose-lose situation for those charged with a crime and for their communities. In fact, withholding prosecution for low-level, “quality of life” crimes has been found to decrease instances of serious crime. Another study, published in May 2021, supports the notion that reductions in arrests for “quality of life” calls does not equate to rising crime rates for more serious crimes.

All longer sentences do is create security theater at the expense of justice. As a direct consequence of harsh sentencing restrictions, including mandatory minimums, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, both in relative and absolute terms. As of 2015, Arizona holds the distinction of being fourth in the nation for overall incarceration rates, costing taxpayers over one billion dollars annually.

Long sentences do not deter crime and deterrence theory itself has been debunked

Incarceration is not an effective way to deter crime; in some cases, it can have the opposite effect. Time spent in prison can desensitize individuals to future punishment while more thoroughly embedding them in a culture of crime. Incarceration also has a ripple effect, negatively impacting family members and the community. Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to drop out of school, and to become incarcerated themselves. The loss of working-age adults is detrimental to a community’s health, as is the shifting of public resources away from social service and towards the prison system.

A more effective way to deter crime is to lean on the certainty of being caught. Efficient and accurate policing makes it more certain someone will be caught and sanctioned for their actions, which has a greater impact on crime than punishment does.

Furthermore, the best deterrence for crime is to make it unattractive to begin with by addressing its root causes. The fact of the matter is that our justice system, in general, and law enforcement, in particular, is simply not equipped to deal with many of the problems they are tasked with resolving: mental health, substance use, housing services, and re-entry support for the formerly incarcerated. Recent studies by the Vera Institute and the New York Times found that, in several large cities, less than 2% of all 911 police calls for service related to serious violent crimes. Other studies found that police spend disproportionate amounts of time policing drugs in communities that experience high levels of violence, but on average spend only four percent of our time solving violent crimes.

With building community trust being such a monumental component of modern day policing, why are we still wasting our time using failed methods which do little except make our jobs more difficult? When we “resolve” a minor situation using our default tool—making an arrest—we further destroy community trust. An ideal solution to this problem is to adequately fund those support services and to allow nonviolent offenders to address the underlying issues which may have led to arrest through diversion programs instead of forcing them to become another ‘justice involved’ statistic in Arizona.

Sentencing reform contributes to overall decreased crime rates

Despite the recent spate of shootings in the headlines, the violent crime rate has actually been declining nationally since the 1990’s. Since 2007, 31 states have enacted sentencing reform as a part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a program designed to enhance public safety, contain the growth of prisons, and decrease the cost of incarceration for taxpayers. Arizona is among those states, but of the 32 policy initiatives that make-up the initiative, it has only adopted one. States that have embraced more of the reforms, such as South Carolina, Ohio, and Georgia, have seen overall reductions in crime rates since 2007. But in Arizona, the rate of violent crime was nearly the same in 2017 as it was in 2007. Overall data shows that sentencing reform lowers incarceration, expands alternatives to prison, and effectively bolsters public safety.

Incarceration does not enhance public safety

Incarceration does not make us safer. Data shows that crime actually increases in communities with high incarceration rates, and the Arizona Department of Corrections reported a 50% recidivism rate in February, 2022. Increasing incarceration is a costly and ineffective way to enhance public safety.

Instead of putting more people in jails or prisons, the justice system as a whole should incentivize addressing the root causes of criminal behavior, including: substance use disorder, mental illness, or criminal justice debt. Rather than fueling mass incarceration, Arizona should focus on establishing effective diversion programs, improving the mental health treatment infrastructure, and reducing the high cost of experiencing the criminal justice system.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws do not create fair sentencing outcomes

Mandatory minimum sentences (MMS) force judges to hand out lengthy sentences and fill prisons, driving mass incarceration while failing to address public safety.

Instead of MMS, judges should be able to do their jobs without having their hands tied by sentencing requirements. Judges should be empowered to make sentencing decisions that take into account the individual circumstances of a crime.  In 2021, 25% of cases nationwide were sentenced under MMS guidelines. That’s too many people incarcerated without regard for circumstances or mental and physical health.

Sentencing reform is good for criminal justice, good for public safety, and good for Arizona. The scope of what we have reformed so far is limited, but in terms of maximizing public safety and taking meaningful steps toward more just sentencing practices, the only way is up.

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