Truth in Sentencing: A Process That Works

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Man in JailThere are powerful and compelling reasons for not returning to the days of meaningless prison sentences as some advocates of “sentencing reform” are suggesting.  Among the more misguided suggestions is a return to the pre-1994 sentencing practice of releasing many prison inmates after serving only 60% of the sentence. Having practiced law in this State for the last 29 years, I beseech the public to pay close attention to this issue.

How quickly we forget why Arizona imposed Truth in Sentencing (“TIS”) a mere 17 years ago. Only since 1994 has the system ensured that a convicted criminal serve at least 85% of the sentence, removing uncertainty about the actual length of time served. For those interested in safe streets, this is good news.

Before 1994, how often our prosecutors took calls from distraught crime victims having learned, for example, that despite a 10-year sentence, the offender was out after only 5.  Even worse, before 1978, open ended sentences such as “5 years to life” were a regular occurrence.  Imagine the prosecutor explaining the sentence to the victim after the judge pronounced it to be 10-years; it would go something like this:

“Yes, the judge sentenced the defendant to 10 years, but, well, actually, he won’t really have to serve 10 years. Most inmates get out after serving about half. Yes, well, I know the judge said 10 years, but umm, well, the law allows his release before that. I know this is hard to understand, but, well, that is how it works in Arizona…the parole board will decide.”

Crime victims and the public have a right to know exactly how long the offender will be in prison. Open-ended sentences breed cynicism and contempt for the system.

A second reason why we should not scrap TIS is that evidence-based research indisputably shows that since 1994 our crime rate has steadily dropped--an astonishing 42% between 1995 and 2008--as our incarceration rate increased by 18%.1
I am one of many who believe this is no coincidence as TIS keeps dangerous felons away from potential victims.

Contrary to the claim that Arizona’s prisons are filled with low-level drug offenders, the 2010 APAAC report Prisoners in Arizona, perhaps the most in-depth profile of Arizona’s prison population ever attempted, dispels that myth once and for all. In fact, sex offenders, violent offenders and repeat offenders comprised more than 94% of convicted criminals in Arizona prisons in September 2009.2 More than 83% have prior felony convictions, and 56% have two or more prior felony convictions. Only about 6% of inmates are in a category that is normally targeted for early release; of those, 55% are likely undocumented aliens.3

One has to work really hard to get a prison bed for a drug possession conviction.  Drug treatment – not incarceration - is required for both first and second drug offenses. In September of 2009, only 6.3% of the inmates had a drug conviction as the most serious offense and of those, 95% were repeat offenders, 38% with a history of felony violence.

Arizona has made great strides from the days when an imposed sentence was meaningless. The facts speak for themselves: lock up the right people for the right reasons and crime rates fall. The system is working. Now is not the time to reverse course on an effective path.

We should always seek more efficient use of criminal justice dollars, but before deciding to eliminate TIS,  understanding the true makeup of the current prison population is not only key, it begs the question--which inmates would you let out? Shall we trade safe streets and the rights of victims for short-term savings?

I am not a prosecutor who seeks merely to lock people up. I believe in prevention, second chances, treatment, rehabilitation, meaningful consequences and accountability. And I believe in Truth in Sentencing.

Sheila Polk is the Yavapai County Attorney, founding member/ co-chair of MATForce, a countywide substance abuse coalition, and President of the Arizona County Attorneys and Sheriffs Association.

1 “Prisoners in Arizona: A Profile of the Inmate Population” by Daryl R. Fischer, PhD, March 2010 (hereinafter “Fischer Report”), pages 7-10.

2 Fischer Report, Executive Summary, page 2.

3 Fischer Report, page 2.