ICYMI: Arizona has about 3 years to stop prison recidivism

By Bill Montgomery

This article was originally published in the Arizona Republic on February 23, 2018


County attorney: Arizona inmates serve, on average, three years – and in many cases, we don’t even have that long to reduce their likelihood of returning to prison.

How one city or town addresses truancy, gang activity or the prevalence of home burglaries is as varied as the youth, gang activity and types of homes in question.

In Arizona, our proximity to an international border, vast deserts and extensive network of interstate highways contributes to our role as a main thoroughfare for smuggling into the United States. 

So, our response to drug sales and drug and human trafficking crimes may be different than the response from Vermont or Oregon to similar crimes. 

Regardless of circumstances, we can expect Arizona to be committed to an effective criminal justice system, just as we can expect Arizona to fulfill its primary duty as a state government to protect its citizens, our freedom and our civil liberties.

Reducing recidivism would help the system

One place we should look to improve criminal justice outcomes is in recidivism reduction. At the municipal level, interventions by law enforcement, school officials and community organizations can successfully redirect youth and keep them from future criminal behavior. 

County prosecutors and public defenders can work together to identify diversion/deferred prosecution opportunities to help with substance abuse, certain first-time offenders and other suitable candidates for diversion opportunities, such as the mentally ill, to reduce the propensity to commit additional felonies and help with underlying issues.  

County probation officers can supervise services that steers offenders away from repeating past behaviors. At the state level, our state prisons can deliver programming at the point of admission that would allow an inmate to address issues, reorient their thinking, and leave prison prepared to successfully reenter the community and avoid committing further crimes.

46 percent of inmates were here before

As of this past January, 45.8 percent of inmates in Arizona prisons had already served a prior prison term. We must examine the current programming available at entry and determine whether there are more effective alternatives designed to reduce recidivism that should be offered during a first term in prison.


In other words, what kind of services – everything from substance abuse treatment to work programs to cognitive behavioral treatment – needs to be offered to the 54.2 percent of the current prison population who are serving their first prison sentence?

What kind of incarceration services are available to minimize, as much as possible, the likelihood that these first time inmates will be released only to commit another felony offense and return to prison?

Most need drug treatment, few get it

A 2011 Fischer study specifically looked at the length of sentence inmates were serving in Arizona prisons from 1985 to 2011. The overall average time served was about three years, even with “truth in sentencing.” That means we have three years to engage the average inmate to minimize the likelihood of their return to prison.

Incarceration programming takes many forms.

In this year’s January Corrections At A Glance report, 77 percent of inmates are identified as needing substance abuse treatment, yet only 2 percent of the inmate population are receiving such treatment. 

Conversely, and keeping in mind various inmate classifications and other requirements that might restrict participation in some programming, 59 percent are participating in work programs. 

One form of programming that demonstrates results involves cognitive behavioral therapy. It is designed and proven to change the criminal thinking that supports criminal behavior.

What if we started as soon as they get here?

Another key aspect of successful incarceration programming is the timing of when it is offered. The bulk of these offerings are timed from an inmate’s release date and “reentry” into society. 

While this is important to help with a successful transition, how much more effective could incarceration programming be at reducing recidivism if started from the beginning of an inmate’s sentence?

Additionally, what degree of change is possible in the entire prison environment? What if inmates were focused on successfully completing programming and any distinctions among inmates were based on their degree of success in completing programs instead of distinctions based on race, gang or the type of crime committed? 

What if drug use in prison was significantly reduced due to greater substance abuse treatment offered from the point of intake, and how might that change the nature of drug trafficking inside of the prison? 

How would eliminating the drug trade inside of prison affect violence? How could reducing violence between inmates affect inmate-on-guard violence and the nature of interactions between Corrections Officers and inmates? 

San Quentin program could work in Arizona

The GRIP Program at San Quentin State Prison in California provides an example of what such an environment might look like. 

I participated in a tour highlighting that program and heard directly from inmates who shared that the expectations in the GRIP Program cultivated a positive environment.  Inmates were expected to avoid drug use and gang activity. 

They were not to fight and they were not to produce illegal alcohol. Instead, the program results in inmates who are engaged in mutually supportive behaviors, including encouraging new inmates to participate in the goals of the GRIP programming.

Corrections officers demonstrated sincere concern about inmate well-being and progress.

These changes won’t occur overnight, but introducing similar programs adapted to Arizona DOC facilities can initiate the change we want and need in order to see a reduction in recidivism – and in doing so, have meaningful reductions in our prison population without gambling with public safety.