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April 14, 2010

Prosecutors defend who gets sent to Arizona's prisons

This interesting local article, which is headlined "Most state inmates committed violent crimes: Officials say state gets money worth for $1B corrections budget," reports on an notable effort by Arizona state prosecutors to defend their state's high prison population.  Here are excerpts:

A new study of the Arizona prison population reports that nearly all inmates have had prior convictions or committed violent felonies.

The Arizona Prosecuting Attorney's Advisory Council commissioned the study, titled "Prisoners in Arizona: A Profile of the Inmate Population." "Who is it who's locked up?" Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall asked at a March 30 news conference. "It's just who you'd expect."

Citing the 91-page analysis, LaWall said at least 94 percent of state inmates are repeat or violent offenders.  The figure represents more than 38,000 of the estimated 40,500 people incarcerated in state and private prisons.

Figures from the study show that 52 percent of inmates, some 21,200 prisoners, have been convicted of violent offenses.  The study also notes that as much as 83 percent, or 33,896 of convicts, have one or more felony convictions on their records.

Law enforcement officials say the study proves that only the most violent or problem criminals fill state prisons.  "A very small minority of folks can be classified as non-violent or fist-time offenders," LaWall said.

The study, as well as comments by LaWall and study author Daryl R. Fischer, may be directed at critics of the state's mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  Such laws lay out sentencing guidelines for numerous crimes, including drug offenses and drunk driving.  "The myth that we're filling our prisons with first-time drug offenders is not true," Fischer commented at the news conference.

A mathematician and longtime research manager with the Arizona Department of Corrections, Fischer wrote the study for the Arizona Prosecuting Attorney's Advisory Council, which paid about $24,000 for it. Fischer retired from the department of corrections in 2007....

According to the "Prisoners in Arizona" study, the state locks up about 567 people in 100,000.  Only Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas incarcerate people at a greater rate.

The study also note the state now spends about $1 billion per year on its corrections department.  "The state is getting its money worth for every tax dollar it spends on the prison system," Fischer said.  He noted that while crime has fallen by 42 percent since 1995, the prison population has risen by 18 percent.

The report discussed in this article, "Prisoners in Arizona: A Profile of the Inmate Population," is available at this link.  The report include a lot of interesting data, and that data might readily be "spun" in any number of ways. 

For example, the report asserts in its final numerical summary that "94.2% of inmates are violent or repeat offenders" and further asserts that, even among thousands of non-violent first offender, "97.2% exhibit factors either predisposing the present incarceration or weighing against early release."  These data certainly suggest that the vast majority of Arizona prisoners have a good reason to be in prison.  But they also suggest that there are still dozens (and perhaps hundreds) of non-violent first offenders behind bars in Arizona who have factors that neither predispose the present incarceration nor weigh against early release.  Now that this report helps identify who these non-violent first offenders may be, I wonder if these unnecessarily incarcerated persons will be able to get released early.

April 14, 2010 at 07:48 AM | Permalink


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Who is promoting this "myth that we're filling our prisons with first-time drug offenders"? Which group or politician said that? Nobody. They're arguing against a straw man, not anybody in the real world who might be available to defend a position they've actually taken. Call it the Bill Otis gambit.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Apr 14, 2010 8:44:13 AM

Most of these guys do deserve some kind of correction. But "corrections" increasingly means incarceration, excessive sentences, increasing use of solitary confinement (which is torture-- try it for a week and see what YOU call it), no rehab, no education/training programs, no mental illness treatment, dangerous conditions, and parole systems designed to fail.

It is these problems-- not the "myth" of first-time drug offenders clogging the system-- that advocates of prison seek to change.

Posted by: Praga | Apr 14, 2010 9:13:18 AM

Re: Straw man arguments, i.e., positions that "not anybody in the real world...[has] actually taken."

Gritsforbreakfast, July 6, 2009: "Bill, Dudley and SC are just bloodthirsty, believing that all killing by the state is inherently, morally good in all instances while the application of common sense utilitarianism is for pussies."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 14, 2010 9:41:39 AM

If a boy got accused of inappropriately touching a girl when he was 13, way back in 1982, he got taken by child protective to juvenile court. Back then, it was a different place than today. Usually, counseling was ordered, and it was a good thing. Then, came the 90's and the 2000's and the charge was on to retribute, retribute, retribute, lengthen those sentences. They doubled, they tripled, they enhanced. Then, they began calling juvenile adjudications from the early 80's priors. So, if a middle aged man's step-daughter knew of his "juvie experience" and she goes to child protection and tells that he touched her inappropriately, then he is a "repeat offender" and he is a violent offender, and he is a repeat, violent offender, and he never gets out in his lifetime. This is what happened to my son. This is similar to what has happened to many poor people. It is tragic for us, and it is expensive for tax payers. It is not practical, and it is not moral.

In my son's case, that old juvenile adjudication was used to both classify him as a persistent sexual offender, and to raise his criminal history score, which is illegal, according to State v Taylor (2000)Kansas. But, when he appealed, his appellant attorney (court appointed) would not raise that issue. He lost his appeal due to a lack of a viable issue, and he is stuck for life.

I just can't stand to hear self righteous people in positions of authority over a state like Arizona, recite their little "data" and try to make it sound like there is justice in

Posted by: DLJ | Apr 14, 2010 11:01:42 AM


I don't know much about criminal procedure, but it *may* be possible to raise that appeal again if the case law clearly says one thing and court-appointed counsel did not raise the issue at sentencing. You may want to call a lawyer in your state and check.

Posted by: Tom | Apr 14, 2010 12:13:39 PM

i'm with you DLJ i also wonder just HOW MANY of those so-called violent offenders are listed as violenct becasue they ACTUALY HURT SOMEONE or becasue the state decided their crime is a violent once even if NO VIOLENCE was used.

Posted by: rodsmith | Apr 14, 2010 1:01:44 PM

Also, it's no myth: "The [Pennsylvania] Department of Corrections has stated that Pennsylvania's state prisons are exploding with non-violent offenders, which include low-level drug users, drunk drivers, parole violators and shoplifters."


Posted by: Praga | Apr 14, 2010 1:13:57 PM

How about what the Feds tried to do with Career Offender and Armed career Criminal. They said that OWI's were a violent crime, until Begasy case came along. Potential for serious physical harm. DLJ my heart goes out to you and I agree.. There actual has to be a violent act.. This rubbish on potential this and that....They even had peopel that walk away from a half way house was a violent crime...It too was reversed.. The Federal system has way too much power and the USATTYs exploit it...Its how they get off....If your not made out of money, your hosed....Most instances, no attorney can get one out of a fix with the feds...Brioad statutes, no real specific definitions....

Posted by: Goodyr | Apr 14, 2010 3:06:48 PM

If you take a snapshot of a prison population on a particular day and look at the distribution of year of admission in most prisons about 50% to 60% of the prisoners were admitted within the past three years. A 60/40 split in short term long term lengths of incarceration.
I do not believe the majority of the short term holds are non violent drug offenders. I think they are more likely to be a mixture of persons convicted of assaults, sex abuse, property crimes, public order offenses, minor drug offenses as well as parole/probation violators. Unless you have the prisoners criminal records available for study it is not possible to decide if these prisoners are non violent or repeat offenders.

This study appears to be one of a small number where they used the criminal records to make that determination. My impression is that their rates for violent and repeat offenders seem to be high. OTOH Pima and Maricopa Counties have very serious problems with gangs and they are most likely the primary sources of prisoners.

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 14, 2010 8:12:31 PM

I wasn't sure what the percentage of "violent" or "non-violent" or "first-time" or "recidivist" offenders in prison was last week, and I am no surer now.

Like PHARMA-funded drug trials and other self-dealing setups, I simply don't feel that I can trust the information offered in a study of incarceration funded by a prosecutor's association and conducted by a lifetime DOC official. It's not about the personal integrity of the authors; its about the structural incentives and position biases of all the players involved. Sort of like the non-independent "accreditation" process for state forensic labs. But I digress.

Posted by: nc atty | Apr 15, 2010 12:08:14 PM

nc atty --

Do you similarly distrust the DPIC "Innocence List"?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 15, 2010 8:18:33 PM

My daughter was a victim of a bad economy, depression because of the death of her father and because a college that accepted her, let her take the classes and then took it all away, charging her $19,000 for her education, (she got straight A 's) because she had a shoplifting charge, done on Christmas Eve (for a Christmas gift, which is not a good reason to do that) During all of this time, not being able to find a job from 2008-2011. She was on the verge of homelessness and made the wrong decision, to conduct identity theft. Out of desperation, the $534 she got wasn't enough to pay her rent, but she got some of it paid and got some groceries and 6 years in prison. She just isn't a good thief. Everything she has tried to steal, she got caught for. She has been in for 30 months and that is only about half way thru her long sentence. The judge was in an extremely bad mood that day, stomping in to the court room, throwing down her papers on the desk and looking up in the courtroom with anger. Anyone there knew that she was angry about something. My daughter is up for Clemency in April. I know AZ will NOT grant her an early release, but we have to try. Can't they see the truth? Will they see that she has changed and she has been doing so well? She will do well, either way. I am sorry to say that her education will have to wait until she gets out. The prison isn't supportive of her doing distant learning. She has only been able to take 2 classes so far. Both straight "A's"! I pray every day for all who have been treated unjustly.

Posted by: Kmn | Mar 26, 2014 9:27:17 PM

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