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What Earned Release could Earn Arizona: cash for schools, pools and cops

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2012-08-31 : Interview with Dr Dave Wells, author of the Reducing Incarceration Costs report at the Grand Canyon Institute for policy.

Q. What are the main points people should know about the prison system?

A.  There was a requirement, that they were supposed to demonstrate that private prisons were most cost effective than public prisons.  But this last round they have removed that requirement.

They also prohibit the state from effectively auditing, (TT Carolyn Issac for details - may be tied into budget bill).  They weren't doing it, instead of doing it they just got rid of the law.

Q Do we have any data that private prisons are more cost effective

All the studies that have come out have generally indicated they are not more cost effective.  Generally private prisons have a lower risk population that they work with so its hard to make a good apples to apples comparison.  Recidivism rate - there have been a lot of issues with undertrained guards at private facilities.

What they do in Arizona fiscally is they save money up front.  The state doesn't build the facility, the state ends up paying for it over a longer period of time and pay a higher amount, but they don't pay the up front cost.  So its a financing difference that is enticing about private prisons.

Q.  What is the current focus of your work on prison system policy?

A. Replacing Truth in Sentencing with Earned Release program for State of Arizona.

Arizona is the only state in entire country that for violent and non-violent offenders require 85% of sentence to be actually served.  States that release non-violent offenders have generally been very successful with that, early release without impacting public safety.  The 85% is regardless of how they behave in prison, how they try to improve themselves, they still have to spend that time behind bars.  And that's costly, Az is one of the cheaper states, it still costs about $21K/year. If you move them into an alternative program with drug treatment, community - the cost involved is between $1-7K/year at the very high end.  It is much cheaper. So the state is spending a lot more money and they are not going to get any better results for that.

The majority of the people in prison have substance abuse issues, and only about 10% of the people gettinreleased are getting treatment.  So they are not dealing with the root causes.  They've had some reforms in Maricopa county and have had successes there. Generally what they've been able to do, is what happens sometimes is people are in a siguation where they have been paroled but if they are not successful in their parole they will get sent to prison.  They've reduced the number of people who get sent back to prison by providing services addressing their underlying need and challenges.  When they violate rules they have been able to come up with other kinds of solutions that are more effective.

Q Is there a secondary cost of our current prison system?  When I've volunteered in group homes, a number of those children in the foster care system are there because their parents are in jail.

A. I'm not aware of any study addressing that.

The spending is an indication of the state priorities.  10 years ago, universities received 40% more than corrections.  With the budget crunch, corrections is one area that has largely been spared the budget cuts

Q. What about educational services?

A lot of those people in prison have not succeeded in our educational system.  There is a fairly low level of expectation in order for them to qualify for educational services.

Q. Are there government officials connected to the private prison system?

A. Chuck Coughlin, Governor Brewer's policy advisor, is a lobbyist for the private prisons.

The governor was pushing the extra prison beds in the budget.  The governor for the most part prevailed.  That took $50M that was supposed to go to the mortgage relief.

Q. What questions would you ask persons running for public office, say for the legislature?

Really needs to be asked - private prisons aren't more cost effective

Our study came up with an estimate that we could save between 35-70M/year by implementing an Earned Release program

Many states have made changes and do not have higher crime rates.
Why hasn't the legislature engaged on this issue to be more effective with their corrective dollars?

Providing no money to schools for buildings or repairs - there is $12M in a fund that is supposed to have 240M - you can't operate a school in arizona without airconditioning, so they take it out of the classroom.  Why is it that its more improtant to give $50M to prisons instead of helping to repair schools.

Q. Can we point to a vote that would hold legislators responsible?

A.  It was the budget vote - if they supported the budget

Budget negotiations were in private, it was not a public discussion.

Especially since prison population has plateaued, why are we spending more on prisons?

I would ask them, what kind of things are you doing to keep down the cost of corrections?  If they are able to take someone and refer them into more appropriate treatment for them, it is more cost effective for everyone.

A number of counties have adopted reforms and have had some success.  

There's a lot of things that can be done at the county level.  If they can't find treatment centers for folks that have mental health issues, or if the police weren't adequately trained in CIT training ( Crisis Intervention Training ) - greater percent of officers trained so if they run into somebody who is schizophrenic, they need to be able to understand that this person's circumstances is very different from what a rational person would have, they need to have better judgement about what their options would be in that.  Its a very complex and challenging job to be able to handle these situations.  That would help put other issues on the radar, put them on the public record for things.  

Q. There is a lot of finger pointing up in Phoenix at immigrants.  Is there any research into immigrants and crime?

A. In prior years, whenever I looked into those figures, I found that they were bad data (blaming immigrants for crime).  In general folks who are immigrants are no more likely and often are less likely to engage in criminal behavior.  Generally immigrant data is not broken out, its not usually divided between those who are legally and not legally here, but generaly that population is not any more likely and oftimes is less likely to commit crimes.

Washington State is one of the places ahead - a better model, different kinds of intervention.

Q. What about services at the local level?  Is there something local officials can do?

There was a financial incentive to keep folks out of prison - state leg gave financial incentive to local governments if they could keep people out of prison?  Not sure how encompassing it was.

Q. What about drug treatment programs, who funds those?

A. There is a certain group of folks who qualify under the proposition 1996, but because drug users often commit other crimes its very easy for them not to qualify for that.

There is one bill that passed this session that increased the number of crimes people qualified for and still be eligible for treatment.  Prosecutors are in favor of the bill, called deferred prosecution, could hang the opportunity in front of people and they could take advantage of it, if they failed they could still be prosecuted later.  It gave them more leeway in terms of the number of people they could potentially offer it to.  
HB2374 :

Ask county attorneys how they will take advantage of that, which programs they support.

For more information, see Reducing Incarceration Costs While Maintaining
Public Safety: From Truth in Sentencing to Earned
Release for Nonviolent Offenders

and bTucson's list of tough questions to ask candidates for the Arizona legislature"

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