Prison study shows increase in violent crime in Arizona

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk: “This data, which tracks prison population since 1971, once again dispels the myth that Arizona’s prisons are laden with low-level offenders.’’

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk: “This data, which tracks prison population since 1971, once again dispels the myth that Arizona’s prisons are laden with low-level offenders.’’

PHOENIX -- Hoping to knock down any talk of sentencing reform, Arizona prosecutors released a report Friday seeking to debunk claims that some of the more than 41,000 people behind bars here really don't belong there.

The study done for the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys Advisory Council claims the percentage of inmates doing time for violent crimes went from 65.4 percent of the prison population in September 2009 to 70.7 percent this past August. And Daryl Fischer, a research statistician who used to work for the Department of Corrections, says when repeat offenders are added to the mix, that brings the total to 95 percent of those who are incarcerated.

Fischer's data did find that the percentage of first-time offenders in Arizona prisons also increased slightly.

But prosecutors said the report proves points they have been trying to make for years.

"This data, which tracks prison population since 1971, once again dispels the myth that Arizona's prisons are laden with low-level offenders,' Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said in a written statement.

The report and its conclusions drew fire from Dave Euchner, a deputy Pima County public defender. He questioned the whole classification.

"This 95 percent include every repeat drug offender who is no longer eligible for mandatory probation because of a powerful drug habit,' said Eucher who also is president of Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, an association of criminal defense lawyers.

But Euchner said the problems in the report go beyond that to the issue of what is a "violent' offense. He said the report includes not just murder and aggravated assault "but possession of a gun by a prohibited possessor and other offenses that the general public may not consider violent.'

MacEachern said the report is simply a follow-up to a study that Fischer performed in 2010. She said there is nothing special about the timing of its release.

Euchner, however, said it's not that innocent. He said releasing the report just a month before lawmakers convene is an effort by prosecutors to undermine any discussion of reforming the state's mandatory sentencing laws.

MacEachern acknowledged the point.

She said prosecutors are quite aware lawmakers return next month to deal with a $500 million deficit this current fiscal year and $1 billion in red ink next year. That could force lawmakers to find ways to cut spending.

"The biggest area that there is to look at is corrections,' MacEachern said, what with the agency having a budget this year in excess of $1 billion.

"That seems to be a place that people are talking about changing the sentencing programs,' she continued. And that discussion, MacEachern said, includes mandatory sentencing guidelines.

These require judges to impose certain minimum prison terms on those accused of certain crimes or who have prior criminal history. MacEachern said prosecutors support these limits on judges to ensure some consistency of sentences among various courts and various counties.

"We're just saying you need to consider these things before you do it,' she said.

That includes the possibility of alternatives to incarceration, including intensive probation programs along with things like counseling.

"Treatment is a great idea,' MacEachern continued. "But it's costly as well.'

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said any discussion of costs of operating the prison system cannot be reviewed in a vacuum. He said lawmakers also need to consider how much money is saved because someone who is locked away is not out committing more crimes.

That still leaves the issue of why there are more than 41,000 people locked up in Arizona.

"The nationwide trend is that crime overall, and violent crime in particular, has been dropping for a few years,' Euchner said.

"Yet Arizona's prison population as a raw total continues to increase by a rate significantly higher than the national average,' he said. "How is it that we have less violent offenses but more violent offenders?'

Polk acknowledged the pretty much steady increase in the number of people incarcerated in Arizona.

It is up by nearly a third in the last decade, though it has leveled off since 2009. By contrast, state population increased by less than 19 percent over the same period.

But Montgomery said that's due to the increase in the number of inmates being sentenced to longer terms because they are repeat or violent offenders. And he said that's a good thing.

"Incapacitation is a legitimate tool for protecting the community from violent and career criminals,' he said.

Euchner does not disagree. But he said the issue of who goes to prison still needs a closer look.

"If the prosecutors sincerely believe that 95 percent of prison inmates belong there, then they should have no objection to sentencing reform that permits the judge to decide upon a fair and reasonable sentence,' he said.

Montgomery said those sentencing law are defensible to ensure that individuals who commit identical crimes do not get widely varying sentences depending on which judge gets the case.

Follow Howard Fischer on Twitter at @azcapmedia.

1985 -- 8,623

1986 -- 9,531

1987 -- 11,275

1988 -- 12,580

1989 -- 13,368

1990 -- 14,313

1991 -- 15,464

1992 -- 16,572

1993 -- 17,968

1994 -- 19,865

1995 -- 21,662

1996 -- 22,697

1997 -- 23,886

1998 -- 25,712

1999 -- 26,003

2000 -- 26,747

2001 -- 28,059

2001 -- 29,359

2003 -- 31,170

2004 -- 32,515

2005 -- 33,471

2006 -- 35,795

2007 -- 37,746

2008 -- 39,502

2009 -- 40,544

1020 -- 40,130

2011 -- 39,958

2012 -- 40,013

2013 -- 41,031

-- Source: Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys Advisory Council

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