Could Arizona save millions by reducing prison time? Maybe

A Google image of the Red Rock Correctional Facility, a private prison that opened in 2013.
A Google image of the Red Rock Correctional Facility, a private prison that opened in 2013.

California’s incarceration rate is among the highest in the nation, but what cost the state $10 billion in 2007 costs $8 billion today.

State officials saved the $2 billion by reducing prison sentences for non-violent felons and residents have not seen any rise in recidivism rates.

If Arizona reduced prison term for non-violent felons, more than $160 million could be saved annually.

In the last 30 years, Arizona’s population has grown one and a half times to just under 6.4 million people. In that same time, the state’s prison population has grown five times as fast.

 California legislators, concerned about rising prison costs, in 2007 reduced prison time for non-violent felons and officials claim it saved $2 billion over eight years. In that time, recidivism rates showed no change, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

California’s prison policies were first addressed by the U.S Supreme Court when it ordered the state to reduce its prison population because of extreme overcrowding. Then in 2011 the state passed legislation calling for non-violent offenders to be incarcerated for shorter periods and to be supervised less.

New York and New Jersey also saw significant reduction in their prison population due to changes in their sentencing policies. Beginning in 1999, the states saw a 26 percent decrease in prison population, according to the Sentencing Project.

 The Sentencing Project is a non-profit organization that provides sentencing advocacy for defense lawyers in an effort to reduce reliance on incarceration.

 What would happen if Arizona did the same?

Non-violent felons – at almost 14,000 — make up almost 35 percent of the state prison population with the average sentence slightly above two years. California’s annual non-violent sentence is six months less.

It costs approximately $65.43 to house an inmate, which includes staff salary and employee related expenditures, clothing, food, health care, travel, utilities, and other cost associated with the operation of a prison, according to Arizona Department of Corrections operating per capita cost report.

That amounts to $23,881 per inmate annually. If Arizona’s non-violent incarceration rate equaled California’s, that could save the state $165 million annually. 

So, why does Arizona keep its non-violent felons locked up longer than other states?

Only Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, and Alabama have higher incarceration rates than Arizona. The state’s average is 586 people incarcerated per 100,000 of the population, and the national average is 478 per 100,000.

The average sentence for non-violent offenders in Arizona depends on the category of the crime. Drug trafficking offenses bring the longest rate, followed by property offenses, DUIs, then drug possession and public order/moral offenses.

California drug trafficking offenders face a sentence that is 16 months shorter than those in Arizona. At that difference, California is saving $61,920 per inmate convicted of a drug trafficking offense.

Arizona currently has 6,005 inmates who have been convicted of a drug trafficking offense. If each of their sentences were reduced by 16 months the total savings would be more than $188 million.

One major concern for communities when it comes to reducing sentences is the threat of rising crime rates and the recidivism of those released.

California made the first changes to their sentences in 2006 and they have seen a steady decline in prison population since then. In 2006 the prison population was 173,942 and in 2011 the number of prisoners had dropped to 149,025.

Prior to the change in prison sentencing California’s recidivism rates for property crimes was at 43 percent within the first year of release. It rose to 57 percent after two years, and 61 percent after three years according to the CDCR’s adult research branch.

A three -year study of recidivism in California showed that those incarcerated for property crimes had a recidivism rate of 49 percent within the first year of release. The recidivism rate rose to 61 percent after two years, and the rate rose again to 69 percent after three years from release.

The recidivism rate did not rise after the shortening of sentences for non-violent offenders so the question now becomes, why does Arizona keep people in prison longer if there is no real benefit?

Arizona state Senator Steve Farley a Democrat from Tucson, represents the 28th district, realizes that there needs to be a change.

“We’re running a bill, which is moving right now in the Senate that would increase the treatment programs for prisoners being released and can make 4,000 people available to this treatment program.”

Farley hopes that this program will help reduce the recidivism rate in Arizona.

The bill proposes drug treatment as an alternative to prison for those convicted with substance abuse problems.

Farley believes by taking these measures the state will be able to avoid the need for a new prison altogether.

According to the projected growth of the prison population is it estimated that the Department of Corrections will need an additional 3,000 beds. Farley believes new legislation will free up the space needed making the new prison unnecessary.

“If you pass this bill for example, within seven and a half years you will have more people who have not reoffended then they would otherwise be expected to, and that more than covers the 3,000 beds they say they need.”

“Why not have fewer people in prison, and more people contributing to the economy,” Farley said, “less money spent on prisons and more money spent on schools.”

Fernando Galvan is a reporter for the Arizona Sonoran News, a service from the school of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Contact him at


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