The Arizona Prosecuting Attorney’s Advisory Council issued a report recently that “the vast majority” of currently incarcerated inmates are violent offenders or are in jail for repeat offenses. However, advocates of prison reform have pointed out that this report uses misleading definitions for “repeat” and “violent” offenders in an effort to justify holding some prisoners who are really no threat to society.
According to the report, just over half of all individuals incarcerated in Arizona are there for a violent offense. In addition, 49.6 are repeat offenders, jailed for committing the same or similar crimes more than once. However, detractors of the report point out than many of the “repeat” offenders are actually suffering from mental illness, alcoholism or drug addiction and would be much better served by treatment than by incarceration. Further, the report classifies many “dangerous” or “violent” offenders according to crimes that are not designated as such by state statute. Finally, the report claims that the truth-in-sentencing laws have been responsible for a recent drop in crime rates, while other data shows an increase in incarceration.
One of the problems with discussing prison reform is the very strong public opinion that criminals should be incarcerated. It is very difficult for legislators to explain budget cuts to the penal institutions or to law enforcement, so elected officials are reluctant to make any changes other than to arrest more “criminals.” Ultimately, however, jailing people for petty crimes is expensive and counterproductive.
Ideally, money that is currently being spent on incarceration could be used for early intervention programs to prevent youth and adults from becoming offenders in the first place. Further, treatment for mental illness and substance abuse could have a positive impact on the crime rate. Unfortunately, incarceration and strict laws seem more feasible to many people, so these things tend to gain favor with the populace. This puts great pressure on those who make the laws and form the budgets to continue with current incarceration practices.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel for those who advocate prison reform. Recent sweeping changes at the federal level have led to mandated reforms in many states and the release of many criminals whose sentences may have been too harsh.
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