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Top 5 Myths About Arizona’s Sentencing Laws

Myth #1: Arizona’s sentencing laws have not made us safer.

Myth #2: Arizona’s sentencing laws cost the State too much in the way of excessive imprisonment expenses.

Myth #3: Arizona prisons are filled with low level drug offenders and others guilty of minor crimes.

Myth #4: Prison is the default punishment in Arizona’s criminal justice system.

Myth #5: Arizona’s prisons are filling up at an alarming rate.

Myth #1: Arizona’s sentencing laws have not made us safer.

Fact: As incarceration rates have increased, crime rates have plummeted throughout the state – exactly the result one would expect from an effective sentencing regime. In Maricopa County, with roughly 65% of the State’s population, violent and property crime rates fell nearly 29% from 2004 to 2009, as the number of prison inmates rose 38%. Statewide, violent crime is down 9% in the latest reported year – far exceeding the national decrease of 5.5%. In 2007, Arizona had the third highest rate of reported crime per capita in the nation. Last year, the ranking fell to ninth. In virtually every category of crime, Arizona has become safer than the nation as a whole since the passage of tougher sentencing laws.

Myth #2: Arizona’s sentencing laws cost the State too much in the way of excessive imprisonment expenses.

Fact: Quite the contrary – tough sentences are actually saving the state money by preventing repeat offenders from committing additional crimes. Research data compiled by the Arizona Prosecuting Attorney’s Advisory Council found that Arizona’s strengthened sentencing statutes have led to the incarceration of an estimated 3,100 additional offenders in Maricopa County since 2005 who would have otherwise not been sent to prison. These are largely repeat offenders who have been found to commit an average of just under one felony per month. With an average prison sentence of 33 months under Arizona’s truth-in-sentencing laws, that works out to roughly 98,038 additional crimes prevented in Maricopa County alone. Assuming 90% of those deterred crimes (88,234) are property crimes with an average cost of $1,900 each, that works out to a savings of $167.7 million. Assuming the remaining 10% (9,804) are violent offenses, generally estimated to cost $20,000 each, that savings approaches $196 million. So, not only are we safer thanks to tougher sentencing, we’ve also saved a bundle – roughly $363.7 million.

Myth #3:Arizona prisons are filled with low level drug offenders and others guilty of minor crimes.

Fact: Nearly 95% of Arizona’s prison inmates have committed multiple felonies and/or a violent felony, including crimes against children or sex offenses, and others defined as “dangerous” under Arizona law. Data from the 2014 Prisoners in Arizona study show that 131 of the roughly 40,000 inmates in our prison system are there for marijuana possession, including those who violated probation for that charge –and most of these convicts pled their cases down from more serious offenses. All other drug offenders in our prisons are there for serious crimes like narcotics trafficking, which carry enormous economic and societal costs. The study further notes that many inmates who appear to be first time offenders are in fact repeat offenders whose prior offenses were not alleged as part of their plea agreements.

Myth #4: Prison is the default punishment in Arizona’s criminal justice system.

Fact: Diversion programs and Early Disposition Courts offer probation and drug treatment alternatives to thousands of defendants each year. The overwhelming majority of first-time felony offenders are placed on probation – and under Proposition 200, many second offenders also have that opportunity.

Myth #5: Arizona’s prisons are filling up at an alarming rate.

Fact: The data shows growth trends in Arizona’s prison population have been relatively consistent over time, particularly in relation to population growth.