After over 16 public meetings in communities around the state, including some gatherings with prisoners in jails, the Arizona Town Hall association has concluded in their recent report that the current criminal justice system is costly and needs reform.
Tara Jackson, president of Arizona Town Hall, believes that people across the political spectrum are coming to the conclusion that change is needed. Specifically, she focused on the “tough on crime” mentality, saying it isn’t working. Their study showed that Arizona's population has increased by 12% between 2006 and 2016, while crime has gone down by 26%. However, she said, the state has incarcerated more people despite the decrease in crime.
“What’s happening is that locking everyone up for a minor possession of marijuana or other drugs seems to create more criminals,” Jackson said. “Once they get out we don’t let them get jobs, so what do they do? Commit more crimes and go back in. Of course, I’m oversimplifying, but this is a trend.”
The town hall association presented their study to leaders of the law enforcement and the justice system in the Coconino community. At that meeting, many people underlined the need for more resources “upstream” to stop people from entering the criminal justice system. Jackson said in their community meetings in jail, prisoners said much the same thing.
“When they were children, what would have kept them out of prison is just somebody caring about them when their parents couldn’t be there. Whether it was a teacher or a counselor,” Jackson said. “But here we are in Arizona, with the lowest ratio of counselors between students and school, with a severely underfunded education system, especially in areas in where crime is the highest.”
For state leaders, they suggested requiring Arizona's elected officials to attend training on the criminal justice system, sponsored by the Arizona Supreme Court.
Additionally, they suggested creating a committee to coordinate with the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice and the Arizona Supreme Court's Fair Justice for All Taskforce to produce annual reports on the justice system's strengths and weaknesses.
The town hall association found that on a yearly basis, the criminal justice system costs $525 for every man, woman and child in the state.
A large portion of state funds goes to the Arizona Department of Corrections. The department houses over 33,000 prisoners convicted of felonies. For each of those prisoners, the department is obligated to house and feed inmates for the duration of their sentence, regardless of how much money the state may have.
Arizona’s general fund gives the Department of Corrections about $1 billion to manage all of those inmates.
Based on their community discussion, the association’s report suggested distributing efforts to stop people from entering the criminal justice system takes work from more agencies than just the Department of Corrections.
“Employment needs, health needs, mental health needs, substance abuse needs and housing needs all point to assistance required from other agencies and organizations,” according to the report.
The report acknowledges the wide variety of agencies and options, alleging no “magic-bullet program” will work for everyone.
Coconino County Attorney Bill Ring said after hearing about the association’s findings that his authority as lead criminal prosecutor for the county is limited. Ring believed fortifying the community’s health districts, school districts, nutrition programs, literacy programs, mental health programs, and before- and after-school programs was important to reform the criminal justice systems.
“When we do that, there will be positive reform to the criminal justice system, because we’ve corrected institutions that are upstream of the criminal justice system,” Ring said. “We’re really a downstream effect; there are really more failures that occur before a person gets to our attention.”