Prison Population Rates Nab National Attention, Law Enforcement Talk To Reduce Rates

Published: Thursday, October 22, 2015 - 3:44pm

Some of the nation’s most prominent police chiefs and law enforcement officials came together this week to call for a reduction in the prison population.

More than 120 active and retired officers and prosecutors gathered in Washington D.C. to say sentencing reforms are desperately needed. New Orleans police chief Ronal Serpas told NPR earlier this week that many prisoners don’t deserve to be behind bars.

”Low level offenders who’ve posed no threat to the community are posing little or no threat to recidivism and overwhelmingly have mental health or drug abuse problems and have no place to go.”

The group, known as collectively as Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, argues that too many people are unnecessarily behind bars for minor offenses, like drug possession, and that policy changes would keep nonviolent offenders out of jail and prisons.

But the effort is getting mixed reviews in Arizona.

On the group’s side is Cecil Ash, a former state lawmaker who made prison reform a priority during his term in the legislature. He’s now a justice of the peace in Mesa. Ash is pleased that this issue got on the national radar this week. He pointed to statistics that show Arizona’s prison population of 42,000 is more than twice that of other states with similar populations, such as Massachusetts and Washington.

“They’ve just found a different approach.” Ash said. “We incarcerate people far longer. For example, we have crimes in Arizona that are misdemeanors in the state of Washington, and they’re class two felonies in the state of Arizona.”

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery disagrees. He argues that as Arizona’s prison and jail population has grown in recent years, crime rates have dropped.

“Over 95 percent of those incarcerated in Arizona prisons are there for a violent offense or have committed repetitive felonies or both. Some of the popular myths are that our prisons are overflowing with low-level drug offenders. That’s patently false.”

Montgomery said he was asked to be part of the effort, but declined, believing the group’s methodology was flawed.

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