Reforming Sentencing Policies and Practices in Arizona

Cassia Spohn 
Foundation Professor
Director - School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
Arizona State University

Reforming sentencing policies and practices is particularly urgent in Arizona, which has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the United States, a ballooning corrections budget, and prison beds filled with non-violent drug offenders who often do not receive the substance abuse treatment they need to successfully re-enter society. 

This article calls for sentencing reforms designed to slow the flow of people into prison, reduce both the number of persons now incarcerated and the lengths of sentences they are serving, and ameliorate unwarranted disparities in imprisonment. Reforming sentencing policies and practices is particularly urgent in Arizona, which has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the United States, a ballooning corrections budget, and prison beds filled with non-violent drug offenders who often do not receive the substance abuse treatment they need to successfully re-enter society. Policies that contributed to Arizona’s imprisonment binge include Proposition 301, which allows judges to impose prison sentences on individuals for a first or second conviction for possession/use of a dangerous drug; the state’s “repetitive offender” sentencing enhancement provisions, which allow judges to increase sentences substantially for persons convicted of multiple offenses or with prior felony convictions; Arizona’s habitual offender provisions, which require a life sentence without parole for offenders convicted of a serious offense who have two or more prior convictions for serious offenses; and Arizona’s truth-in-sentencing rule, which requires most offenders to serve 85 percent of the sentence imposed by the judge before being eligible for release. The reforms advocated in this article are designed to end Arizona’s imprisonment crisis and to ensure that sentences are fair, equitable, and proportionate.

Key Findings:

  • Although prison populations throughout the United States skyrocketed during the past four decades—increasing fourfold from 1980 to 2017—the prison population in Arizona grew by a shocking multiple of 12. In fact, Arizona’s prison population increased by 60 percent from 2000 to 2017, despite declining violent and property crime rates and an increase in the Arizona population of only 33 percent.

  • These dramatic increases in the prison population—in Arizona and elsewhere—were due, not to increases in crime, but to changes in sentencing policies and practices, including mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes or habitual offender provisions, truth-in- sentencing statutes, life without the possibility of parole laws, and overly punitive sentencing guidelines in which the severity of the sentence is not proportionate to the seriousness of the crime.

  • There are racial disparities in Arizona sentencing outcomes, including the use of capital punishment, the imposition of life sentences, and the lengths of sentences imposed on first offenders convicted of possession of marijuana with intent to sell. For each of these outcomes, black offenders were treated more harshly than white offenders.

  • In 2019 the budget for the Arizona Department of Corrections was $1.1 billion, an increase of more than $280 million since 2000 and substantially more than Arizona’s investments in higher education, economic security, and child safety.

Key Recommendations:

  • Repeal the death penalty or, at a minimum, significantly reduce the number of aggravating circumstances that make an offender eligible for a death sentence.

  • Make sentencing in Arizona less punitive by reducing mandatory sentencing enhancements for repeat offenders and multiple offenses, raising weight and monetary thresholds for drug and property offenses, providing judges with enhanced discretion to depart from the guidelines when appropriate, and ensuring that statutory maximum sentences are proportionate to the seriousness of the crime.

  • Repeal or drastically scale back all mandatory minimum sentences and repeal Proposition 301, which allows judges to impose a prison sentence on persons convicted of a first or second offense of possession or use of methamphetamine—sentence these offenders to probation with mandatory substance abuse treatment.

  • Reduce the percentage of time offenders must serve before being released from prison under Arizona’s truth-in-sentencing statute from 85 percent to 60 percent for all offenders incarcerated for non-violent crimes and drug offenses.

  • Revise the habitual offender law that requires a life sentence in certain circumstances to reduce the amount of time that must be served before the offender is eligible for release.

  • Reinvest cost savings from reducing incarceration in community-based programs that provide treatment, prevent crime, and protect public safety.

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