Over the past three decades, Arizona’s prison population has grown at a much faster rate than the state’s overall population. Between 2001 and 2016, the state’s prison population increased from 26,579 to 42,743 incarcerated people— a 60.8% increase. Meanwhile, the state’s population has only increased by approximately 31% over the same time period. The rapid expansion of incarceration has forced Arizona taxpayers to keep footing increases in correctional spending, which topped out at nearly $1.2 billion for the 2017 fiscal year. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, Arizona spends the fourth highest percentage of general fund expenditures on corrections. The state also has the fourth highest rate of female incarceration, and nearly 100,000 of Arizona’s children have a parent in prison on a given day.
Part of the driving force behind Arizona’s massive expansion of incarceration is the number of people behind bars who have committed low-level and non-violent crimes. Judge’s hands are tied by mandatory sentencing, which applies to both serious and non-dangerous offenses. The state also applies longer sentences for lower quantities of drugs than many of its neighboring states. Finally, it is one of only three states requiring everyone to serve at least 85% of their prison sentence—even people convicted of non-violent offenses—rather than incentivizing early release through good behavior and participation in prison programming.
Even with such a massive investment in corrections, Arizona’s system is failing to effectively correct, rehabilitate or support the reentry of people who have committed crimes, as illustrated by an abysmal 39.8%. recidivism rate.
Many people are cycling into Arizona’s prison for infractions of probation or parole, some as minor as missing a single meeting with their probation officer. For the 2016 fiscal year, technical violations represented about 34 percent of state prison admissions
Since taking office in 2015, Governor Doug Ducey has called for reform to Arizona’s justice system. Under Ducey’s tenure, the state Department of Corrections created the Division of Inmate Programs and Reentry. The division is tasked with utilizing evidence-based practices to assess the needs of incoming prisoners and prepare them for successful reintegration into society upon release. In 2017, Governor Ducey signed a civil asset forfeiture reform bill that passed the Legislature with bipartisan support, increasing the burden of proof required for property to be seized and permanently forfeited and increasing transparency for how law enforcement agencies spend forfeiture proceeds. It also removed a provision in state law that previously left property owners liable for attorneys fees if they contested forfeiture was and lost. Governor Ducey also signed a measure to reform Arizona’s occupational licensing laws, breaking down barriers to employment for people with a criminal record.