A new study of the Arizona prison population reports that nearly all inmates have had prior convictions or committed violent felonies.
The Arizona Prosecuting Attorney's Advisory Council commissioned the study, titled "Prisoners in Arizona: A Profile of the Inmate Population."
"Who is it who's locked up?" Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall asked at a March 30 news conference. "It's just who you'd expect."
Citing the 91-page analysis, LaWall said at least 94 percent of state inmates are repeat or violent offenders. The figure represents more than 38,000 of the estimated 40,500 people incarcerated in state and private prisons.
Figures from the study show that 52 percent of inmates, some 21,200 prisoners, have been convicted of violent offenses. The study also notes that as much as 83 percent, or 33,896 of convicts, have one or more felony convictions on their records.
Law enforcement officials say the study proves that only the most violent or problem criminals fill state prisons.
"A very small minority of folks can be classified as non-violent or fist-time offenders," LaWall said.
The study, as well as comments by LaWall and study author Daryl R. Fischer, may be directed at critics of the state's mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Such laws lay out sentencing guidelines for numerous crimes, including drug offenses and drunk driving.
"The myth that we're filling our prisons with first-time drug offenders is not true," Fischer commented at the news conference.
A mathematician and longtime research manager with the Arizona Department of Corrections, Fischer wrote the study for the Arizona Prosecuting Attorney's Advisory Council, which paid about $24,000 for it. Fischer retired from the department of corrections in 2007.
Rudolph J. Gerber, a retired Arizona Court of Appeals judge, had testified to an Arizona House of Representatives committee in opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. In that testimony, Gerber described Arizona as one of the most punitive jurisdictions in the world. The state spends about $30,000 annually to house each inmate.
The retired judge has written numerous books about the criminal justice system, and has been a critic of mandatory minimum sentencing and the death penalty. He could not be reached for comment.
According to the "Prisoners in Arizona" study, the state locks up about 567 people in 100,000. Only Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas incarcerate people at a greater rate.
The study also note the state now spends about $1 billion per year on its corrections department.
"The state is getting its money worth for every tax dollar it spends on the prison system," Fischer said. He noted that while crime has fallen by 42 percent since 1995, the prison population has risen by 18 percent.
Certain groups, such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, advocate against mandatory minimum sentencing. That Washington, D.C.-based group has studied prison populations in Arizona and other states, but found starkly different results. A study conducted in 2004 found that 55 percent of state inmates were serving time for non-violent offenses.
Deborah Fleischaker, a researcher with FAMM, commented that the study unveiled last week, along with a lack of footnotes, seemed to miss a larger point.
"States, Arizona included, have a difficulty in distinguishing between people we're scared of and people we're mad at," Fleischaker said.
She said FAMM would like to see states like Arizona with mandatory minimum sentencing enact reforms that would allow judges greater discretion and put more people in treatment programs and on parole instead of in prisons.
FAMM has held the position that many offenders deserve the harsher sentences proscribed under mandatory minimums, but that the laws don't afford much in the way of concessions.
"There's always exceptions," Fleischaker said.