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Arizona: A case study in why we need drug sentencing reform

Caroline Isaacs at a press conference on AFSC's report on drug sentencing in Arizona. Photo: Arizona / AFSC

Across the nation, there is growing awareness of the increased use of opioids, and a related rise in the spread of blood-borne disease, accidental overdoses, and deaths. From Indiana to Alaska, state officials have implemented emergency ordinances to address this devastating epidemic.

With an increasing number of people (particularly white, middle-/upper-class people) affected by this crisis, the rhetoric of those in power has moved away from portraying addiction as a moral failure to be criminalized, to recognizing it as a disease that should be treated. This shift has allowed for minor changes in a handful of communities around the U.S.

Yet in Arizona and at the federal level, policies overwhelmingly have remained mired in the outdated and ineffective “tough-on-crime” approach to address drug use. This is despite multiple studies that show incarceration does not reduce addiction nor does it increase public safety.

In Arizona’s largest county, for instance, drug-related activities are the No. 2 reason for arrest, and represent the majority of all charges filed. Yet once there, less than two percent of people with significant substance abuse histories receive addiction treatment. The dismal result is that Arizona has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the country, and a recidivism rate of 50 percent.

AFSC has worked for over 20 years in Arizona to reform the criminal justice system. These efforts have been hampered by the fact that the state does not collect any aggregate data on how criminal sentencing laws are actually being applied. There was no way to know how many people were arrested or sentenced under a given criminal law, what sentence they received, or how much it cost.

With a generous grant from the Public Welfare Foundation, AFSC Arizona took on the task of gathering the data needed to begin to fix our broken system. A team of law students travelled to the court buildings of three separate counties to gather data on over 1200 cases with drug sentences that resulted in prison in 2015.

The result: Our report “Drug Sentencing in Arizona: A Prescription for Failure offers a first-of-its-kind data analysis that takes a critical look at drug-sentencing laws and how they are applied at all stages of the criminal justice system.

The results demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Arizona’s “hardline” approach to drug offenses and shine a light on glaring disparities in how the state treats people of color:

  • Of the 10 most charged offenses in Maricopa County (Phoenix) in 2015, eight were drug-related. And all were for possession, use, or paraphernalia, not for sales or trafficking offenses. 
  • Drug crimes make up the largest category of offense for which people are incarcerated in the Arizona state prison system, with more than one-fifth being in for drugs as their highest charge.
  • One-third of women are incarcerated solely for drugs.
  • African Americans are more likely to go to prison for a drug offense (even possession) and receive sentences that are 24 percent longer than white people convicted of drug crimes.
  • The state spends over half a million dollars per day to incarcerate people whose most serious charge is a drug offense.
  • Our new report shows that Arizona needs a more effective, equitable, and humane approach to dealing with drug addiction.

Arizona Sen. Martin Quezada (left) and former Arizona law enforcement officer Terry Belvins (right) joined AFSC's Caroline Isaacs at a press conference announcing the new report. Photo: AFSC/Arizona

Strategic policy approaches like defelonization of drug possession and expanding non-criminal justice interventions, such as methadone clinics for medical monitoring or residential treatment without lengthy waitlists, treatment without lengthy waitlists, could cut the prison budget by an estimate of at least 20 percent. Those funds can then go toward healing justice alternatives, including counseling, drug treatment, and prevention programs like clean needle exchanges. This "justice reinvestment" approach would increase public safety by addressing the traumas that can lead to criminal activities.

This report is just one step needed to make real change in our criminal justice system. More information and ongoing critical analysis are required. We hope our elected officials and other in power take a hard look at the reality of our drug sentencing laws and see where we have made mistakes. From there, we can adjust our approach and make way for true healing to begin.  

About the Author

Rebecca Fealk is a program coordinator for AFSC in Arizona focusing on research and sentencing reform. Having worked in both direct client services and policy-based areas, her goal is to provide community education and legislative reform that reduces poverty, prevents discrimination, and promotes healing.


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