The Arizona Legislature Is Ignoring A Crisis in Our Prisons – Pat Nolan

Arizona’s prisons are in crisis. On every level they are failing – and have been failing for years. Yet, despite this abysmal record, the Legislature remains passive, shirking their duty to oversee state agencies. These are just a few recent incidents:

  • Cell doors at several prison facilities did not lock properly. Prison officials knew this yet did nothing to about it. This resulted in multiple violent assaults on corrections officers and inmates, and two deaths.
  • Video from the Lewis maximum-security prison shows inmates leaving their cells to riot for more than an hour and a half. The inmates set multiple fires forcing the entire unit to be evacuated. The video shows officers standing by and doing little to stop the riot. A few weeks later at the same prison, security footage showed inmates streaming from their cells to overpower and injure vastly outnumbered correctional officers.
  • In 2021 two inmates escaped from the prison in Florence and were not caught until five days later. Less than a year later another inmate escaped over the fences, but fortunately was caught hiding in an adjacent construction site.

From broken locks on cell doors, to riots and escapes these chronic failures endanger the staff, inmates, and most important the public.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) fails us in another important way: four out of every ten inmates return to prison within three years of release. That is a failure rate of 40%. The DOC is tasked with sending home prisoners prepared to be good neighbors. The safety of our communities depends on this.

We don’t expect every prisoner to be transformed. But Arizonans have a right to expect the DOC to do better than New York, California, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, and Texas – all of which have lower recidivism rates than Arizona. Would you continue to go to a hospital that repeatedly sent you home sick? Prisons are the only institution that grow by failing. Why aren’t our legislators demanding better results?

Despite these many failures of the DOC, the Legislature has killed every attempt to hold the DOC accountable, most recently a bill by Rep. Walt Blackman which called for independent oversight of our prisons. Aiming to kill the bill, Speaker Bowers sent the bill to Rep. Kevin Payne’s committee where Chairman Payne “strangled the baby in its crib” and refused to allow a hearing on the bill. The Legislature has defeated every proposal to adopt reforms similar to those passed in red states as Texas, Utah, Georgia, and Louisiana.

Sadly, the only prison measure set to pass this session is the DOC budget of more than $1.5 billion. This is a HUGE increase of 25% over last year’s budget. In fact, it is 12 times larger than the DOC’s budget was in 1986! An increase 6 times more than Arizona’s population has grown. How do legislators justify this dramatic increase, but not hold the department accountable for its failings?

So, what do conservatives expect the Legislature to do in the month remaining? First, legislators should refuse to approve the mind-boggling DOC budget increase until Rep. Blackman’s Oversight bill is resurrected and sent to the Governor. It makes no sense for the Legislature to allow the DOC to monitor itself. It’s like allowing students to grade their own tests.

Then, legislators should adopt prison reforms patterned after those adopted by conservative governors of states such as Texas, Georgia, Utah, and Mississippi. Those states are saving hundreds of millions of dollars by reserving costly prison beds for truly dangerous criminals. Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but Arizona is filling ours with folks we are just mad at. Arizona locks up more people for drug crimes than all violent offenses combined!

Arizona can be tough on crime – and smart on crime. That’s why President Trump championed the First Step Act, his major criminal justice reform that passed with overwhelming support of conservatives in both houses of Congress. The act targets prison beds for violent offenders and focuses federal prisons on preparing inmates to be good neighbors when released.

ACU is the sponsor of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) every year. We polled the thousands of grassroots conservatives that attend CPAC. Our activists strongly support the criminal justice reforms ACU advocates.

ACU was a prime mover in passing Trump’s First Step Act, and we have sponsored the state reforms that have proven successful in lowering crime rates, reducing recidivism, and saving taxpayers millions.

These reforms are not the creation of some “woke” think tank. They are supported by conservatives such as Rick Perry, former governor of Texas, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, former Senators Jim DeMint and Sam Brownback, former Congressman J.C. Watts, and David Keene former president of the NRA.

Given such broad conservative support, we are troubled that the Arizona Legislature has stubbornly opposed all attempts to hold the DOC accountable. We need prisons – conservatives want offenders held accountable for their crimes – but we want the DOC bureaucracy to be held to account as well.

These reforms are a top priority for the ACU, and we will include them in our Legislative ratings. There is still time in the next month of session for conservative legislators to address these critical public safety issues. We are hopeful – and we are watching.

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