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Will rising prison costs spark reform?

Decades of swaggering have barely dented crime rates. But here are two things get-tough politicians did achieve: plumping our prisons with nonviolent offenders, and saddling taxpayers with the bill.

Rhetoric may meet the road, however, as a new study of Arizona's mushrooming prison population gets underway. We're among five states undergoing this review; all are hoping to lower incarceration rates and get prison budgets under control.

It can't come too soon. Without changes, Arizona's prison population could swell 50 percent by 2017, with a $3 billion Department of Corrections price tag.

Those numbers aren't farfetched. Arizona's prison population grew by that percentage over the last decade. And prison spending topped $817 million this year, up from $409 million in 1997.

Even with such hefty budgets, the state is still short 4,000 beds for current inmates. That's forced prison officials into dispatching convicts to other states, such as the recent transfer of 1,200 prisoners to Indiana.

Why the crisis? Partial blame goes to harsh prison terms, imposed under mandatory-sentencing guidelines. According to a 2003 study by the research group Justice Strategies, a vast majority of Arizona inmates are nonviolent offenders, and one in five is imprisoned for drugs. In total, more than 10,000 inmates in state prisons were nonviolent drug criminals. Given those numbers, it's little surprise that Arizona perennially ranks among states with the highest per-capita incarceration rates.

But all that lockup isn't working: We still suffer the nation's highest index crime rate.

Which brings us to the pending analysis by the Council of State Governments' Justice Center. The study is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and Pew Charitable Trusts, and will be carried out by the JFA Institute.

Soon emerging from that dizzying array of titles will be new ideas for stanching prison growth, says Dr. James Austin, JFA's president. Nearly a dozen states are looking hard at this issue, "and they're all saying, 'Can we do things differently?' Many states have hit their limits in how much they want to invest in their prisons."

That price tag has skyrocketed, he says. "When I started in this business 30 years ago, there were less than 200,000 people locked up in the country. Today, there are 1.5 million. That's a huge increase and a very big investment.

"I think even conservative observers realize that we've reached a point where further incarceration really isn't going to do that much for us. We've got just about all the bad guys locked up now, and maybe we've gone a little bit too far. So maybe we need to rethink things."

But researchers here will also hit the ground running; in past studies, they've already uncovered a few basics that are driving rates upward. Not surprisingly, those factors boil down to the number of offenders entering prison and the length of their stays.

Beyond that, it gets complicated. "We try to analyze who is coming in," Austin says. "Then we look at the release practices of the state, how long people are serving, and what kind of danger they pose to public safety. In basic terms, we try to identify who could be diverted from prison, either on probation or some kind of local sanction.

"On the back end, we also look at people we think could be released a little faster, maybe two or three months (early), because generally, they don't pose a public danger. And you can do that a number of ways--through legislative reform or administrative practices."

Still, Arizona may be an unusually tough nut to crack. For one, overall population growth is explosive, and prison numbers follow. We're also among a tiny number of states with so-called "truth in sentencing" guidelines. In essence, they mandate every convict serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, good behavior or not. "That lengthens the time of imprisonment," Austin says, "and you can't moderate it unless you change those laws legislatively.

"It's fair to say that Arizona's laws are pretty tough," he says. They include "unusual laws that send people to prison, where in other states, they'd do their time in (local) jails or on probation. And you have people on probation who in other places would just be fined or pay restitution."

But statehouse politics aren't the only thing driving prison growth, says Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. He cites $10 billion in federal grants, provided to states in the 1990s for building prisons. Those funds were administered under the U.S. Justice Department's Violent Offender Incarceration and Truth-in-Sentencing Incentive Program. While they encouraged more jail cells, maintaining that additional lockup fell to taxpayers.

Ziedenberg also blames private prisons built by Corrections Corporation of America. The company runs four facilities in Arizona, including a problem-plagued medium-security prison in Florence. "They come in and build prisons and say, 'OK, for a couple of years, we may even pay for the cost of them," he says. "But then (taxpayers) are stuck paying for it. And every time we build the capacity of prison systems, we find ways of filling them."

Like Austin, he also blames mandatory prison sentences for booming incarceration rates. "The top of the system, driving more and more people into prison, are rigid sentencing structures.They don't allow a judge to make individualized decisions."

While tough sentencing makes for good politics, Ziedenberg cites research showing that harsh sentences raise costs, but do not reduce crime. And in the end, those costs may be too much even for chest-thumping lawmakers to justify.

Or maybe not: Calls to several state lawmakers were not returned. They included Sen. John Huppenthal, a Chandler Republican and chair of the Arizona Senate Judiciary Committee

Regardless, climbing costs may succeed where decades of prison reformers have failed. "Finally, yawning state budget deficits have achieved what we could not," says David Fathi, senior staff council with the ACLU's National Prison Project in New York. "They've prompted a rational re-examination of incarceration policies."

Arizona "is certainly part of that national trend," he says. "For two decades, we in the criminal-justice community have argued that this country massively overincarcerates people--incarcerates many people for no rational reason--until we've become the world's leader in per-capita incarceration."

But in the end, we just can't lock up everybody. And that's where a thoughtful debate begins, over who really should live behind bars and who shouldn't. Fathi recalls chatting with a county sheriff who summed it up quite nicely. "He told me, 'We need to distinguish the people we're afraid of from those we're just mad at.'

"That's what I think needs to happen with incarceration policy," Fathi says. "And I think that's what's beginning to happen in Arizona and other states."

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