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December 16, 2009

The now-quite-common dollars and sentencing debate taking place in Arizona

A down economy and tight state budgets has prompted nearly all states to confront the critical and valuable issue of how public safety can be maintained or improved at less cost.  This local article from Arizona, which is headlined "House panel reviews cost of sentencing," reports on the terms of the debate that is now quite familiar to serious students of state criminal justice systems:

Arizona's state budget problems are prompting lawmakers to take a new look at how the state does business. On Tuesday, a House committee started work on a re-examination of crime and punishment in Arizona. The issue: Are there changes in state sentencing laws that would save money? How can the state protect citizens while still cinching its budget belt?

"The goal is to correct some of the problems in the criminal-justice system," said Rep. Cecil Ash, R-Mesa and the committee chairman. That would include rooting out spending inefficiencies as well as injustices, he said, after the committee concluded a nearly four-hour hearing.

Ash, a former public defender, said he hopes for recommendations that will lead to changes in the law. Saving money isn't the only goal, although it's likely if the committee comes up with alternatives to locking up criminals at an average cost of $30,000 a year. "If you're paying $30,000 a year for an inmate, one probation officer could take care of 30 to 40 prisoners," Ash said of a possible shift to more probation as an alternative to mandatory minimum prison terms.

Sentencing laws are just the beginning of the hunt for ways to save money. House Speaker Kirk Adams has formed three more study committees dealing with education finance, behavioral health and the federal stimulus act. Their work should start next month....

On Tuesday, the study committee on prison sentencing got a mixed bag of advice.

Public defenders, a former state appeals-court judge and the families of inmates pleaded for a rollback of Arizona's mandatory minimum-sentencing laws. They backed the idea of a sentencing commission that would take a fresh look at laws that date from the 1970s, with revisions made in the 1990s.

Prosecutors and crime-victim advocates advised caution, saying the current laws deter crime. "There is a persistent myth that Arizona's draconian sentences are imposed on first-time non-violent offenders," said Steve Twist, president of Arizona Voice for Crime Victims and a former state assistant attorney general.

But Shawnelee Cooper, whose husband is in prison on a substance-abuse-related charge, said he got ensnared in the mandatory sentencing laws. And there's a cost beyond the estimated $30,000 annual spending to house an inmate: She and her daughter, who has respiratory problems, are now on public assistance since the family lost its breadwinner. Cooper estimated it costs the state $2,000 a month to keep them on state-provided medical coverage.

December 16, 2009 at 10:25 AM | Permalink

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Steve Twist from article: "There is a persistent myth that Arizona's draconian sentences are imposed on first-time non-violent offenders,"

me: wasn't Arizona the state which gave some perv with no prior record 200 years in prison for possession of child pornography?

Posted by: virginia | Dec 16, 2009 12:30:26 PM

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