My Turn: Arizona’s Truth in Sentencing law keeps dangerous felons where they belong
Since 1994, Arizona has been the envy of other states for our criminal sentencing practices called “Truth in Sentencing.” There are some who now advocate we abandon Truth in Sentencing and return to the days of “soft time” or the release of prisoners after serving only 60 percent of the sentence.
How quickly we forget why Arizona imposed Truth in Sentencing a mere 17 years ago. Only since 1994 has the system ensured that a convicted criminal serve at least 85 percent of the sentence, removing uncertainty about the actual length of time served. For those interested in safe streets, this is good news.
Having practiced law in this State for the last 29 years, I beseech the public to pay close attention to this issue.
The myth persists that the sentencing laws took all discretion away from judges. The “truth” is that Truth in Sentencing offers judges a range of prison terms that can be imposed for different types of crime, based on the severity of the crime itself. Generally speaking, prison is mandated only for the bad stuff – child molestation, specific sexual offenses, crimes involving deadly weapons or serious physical injury, major drug traffickers, and DUIs. All other crimes are probation-eligible, unless the offender has a history of felony convictions.
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; 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 the law allows his release before that. I know this is hard to understand, but that’s 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.
Since the imposition of Truth in Sentencing in 1994, our crime rate has steadily dropped - an astonishing 42 percent between 1995 and 2008 - as our incarceration rate increased by 18 percent. I am one of many who believe this is no coincidence as Truth in Sentencing keeps dangerous felons away from potential victims.
Contrary to the unsupported 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. Of the entire prison population, 94 percent are sex offenders, violent offenders or repeat offenders. More than 83 percent have prior felony convictions, and 56 percent have two or more prior felony convictions. Only about 6 percent of inmates are in a category that is normally targeted for early release; of those, 54 percent are likely undocumented aliens.
One has to work really hard to get a prison bed for mere drug possession. Drug treatment – not incarceration – is mandatory for both first and second drug possession offenses, except for methamphetamine. In September of 2009, only 6.3 percent of the inmates had a drug conviction as the most serious offense and of those, 95 percent were repeat offenders, 38 percent with a history of felony violence.
Arizona has made great strides from the days when the sentence imposed by the judge was met with cynicism. The facts speak for themselves: lock up the right offenders 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 Truth in Sentencing, 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, treatment, rehabilitation, meaningful consequences and accountability. And I believe in Truth in Sentencing.
Sheila Polk is the Yavapai County Attorney and a founding Member and Co-Chair of MATForce. She is the president of the Arizona County Attorneys and Sheriffs Association.