Last month, in a move that captured national attention, Oklahoma released 462 people early from prison after Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted their sentences. Each of these individuals was imprisoned for low-level, nonviolent offenses that, due to recent reforms, would not result in prison were they arrested today. Stitt’s order was the largest single-day commutation in United States history.
Arizona, which carries the unfortunate distinction of having the fifth-highest imprisonment rate in the nation, can learn from the smart, conservative leadership demonstrated by Stitt. After Oklahoma spent years sending more and more people to prison, spending over half a billion dollars in 2017 on corrections and leading the nation in imprisonment, state leaders made it a top priority to recalibrate Oklahoma’s approach to public safety, exploring innovative policies and investing in effective, community-based treatment that has proven to better reduce recidivism at a lower cost.
Former Gov. Mary Fallin presided over several such reforms, and the state is now reinvesting its savings into community-based treatment and mental health programs.
Stitt is demonstrating bold leadership by building on those efforts, making the policies apply retroactively and executing his historic commutation order. He has also recognized that to ensure people successfully transition from prison to their communities, they need targeted support to help with reentry. And with the most recent commutation, Oklahoma is projected to save an estimated $119 million it would have otherwise spent to keep those people in prison.
Meanwhile, Arizona has routinely rejected even the most modest of reforms. The state imprisons more than 42,000 people every year and spends well over a billion dollars to maintain the status quo.
Many of these individuals are convicted of nonviolent drug offenses and could be better held accountable through drug courts and other community-based interventions. Between 2000 and 2017, the number of people being sent to prison for drug possession in Arizona grew 142%. And in 2019, over a third of those admitted to prison in Arizona have no prior felony history or no violent history. Yet state leaders have dismissed as “bad ideas” the solutions that are working all across the country. Oklahoma is hardly alone in its efforts; Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina and many other states have demonstrated that crime and incarceration can be reduced simultaneously. And Arizona’s elected officials would hardly be going out on a limb in doing so; popular opinion throughout the state supports a whole host of changes to safely reduce the prison population.
The 2020 legislative session may well offer Arizona some opportunities to enact smarter policies. Republican State Rep. Walt Blackman is chairing an ad hoc committee to examine ways in which Arizona prisoners could earn reduced sentences by participating in treatment, training, and educational programming, a policy common in many states.
Gov. Doug Ducey and the legislature are poised to make a huge difference in the lives of many Arizonans by embracing smarter criminal justice policy consistent with conservative values. Arizonans are not less capable than other Americans of change, or of making the most of second chances.
Arizona can learn from Oklahoma, a deep-red state, and moving in this direction is hardly radical. Indeed, right-sizing the criminal justice system is simply another proven conservative strategy to limit government and ensure taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly.