Too many nonviolent offenders stuck behind bars

Policy Change Could Save State $30 to $73 Million Annually and Maintain Safety

PHOENIX — Ten years ago the state’s three universities received 40 percent more funding from the General Fund than did the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC).  Today, it’s reversed; corrections receives 40 percent more than universities.  No one voted to change priorities, rather a new report from the Grand Canyon Institute, a centrist think tank, argues Arizona’s rigid approach to sentencing nonviolent offenders is a significant cause.

The Grand Canyon Institute Monday released its report “Reducing Incarceration While Maintaining Public Safety: From Truth in Sentencing to Earned Release for Nonviolent Offenders.”   Says report author, Dave Wells, a Fellow for the Institute, “Arizonan is the only state in the country that requires nonviolent offenders, regardless of risk or programs they complete while in custody, to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence behind bars.  That’s neither cost effective nor best practice.  Arizona can learn from other states that have moved toward earned release with appropriate community supervision and drug treatment and save between $30 and $73 million annually while maintaining public safety.”

Former Republican State Representative Bill Konopnicki, who serves on the Institute’s Board, notes, “Our prisons can be a revolving door.  Last year 19,055 people left the Arizona Department of Corrections and another 18,759 people replaced them.  At least three in four have significant substance abuse issues, yet last year only 1,810 received treatment.  It’s no wonder that repeat offenders make up seven out of every 10 inmates.”

Wells indicated that the Safe Communities Act of 2008 passed by the state legislature supported incentive-based reforms for county probation agencies.  Under the law probationers earn 20 days off their sentence for every month they meet all their obligations, which can include drug testing.  The number of individuals with probations revoked and sent to prison has dropped dramatically as a consequence.  Reductions in Maricopa County alone now save the state $27 million annually over 2008.

The study argues that if similar incentives were adopted for nonviolent offenders currently in prison with an added focus on drug treatment that outcomes would improve.  Konopnicki noted, “The math is pretty simple.  It costs $20,000 to incarcerate a nonviolent offender, but less than $4,500 to provide community supervision, often with electronic monitoring, and drug treatment and testing to the same person.”

For a copy of the policy report, go to