By: JACK WILBORN, Retired Glendale Police Officer
In the years I served with the Glendale Police Department, I learned many things. I learned how to teach new recruits to shoot firearms. I learned to spot the tell-tale signs of domestic violence, even when the victim isn’t saying much. I learned that drug addiction could make good people do terrible things to themselves and their family.
I also learned about what stops crime — and what doesn’t. No. 1 lesson: Relying on prison is a mistake. I have helped arrest many people for drug and property crimes. I remember one big bust when we took down a local trafficking ring. Before we had even finished booking them into jail, others had taken their place. And when these people came out of prison, with criminal records they would never shake, they were at high risk to return to the drug trade.
We need prison for people who pose a danger to our community. But for most people, prison isn’t a long-term solution — it is a school to become a better criminal. Unfortunately, our state has not learned this lesson yet.
According to a new report by the bipartisan group FWD.us, since 2000, Arizona has increased the number of people sent to prison for non-violent crimes by 80 percent, and has tripled the number of people sent to prison on their first felony conviction. Arizona also sends people to prison for longer, with drug sentences that are 40-percent longer than the national average and property crime sentences that are twice the national average.
Maricopa County, my county, is responsible for 50 percent of the growth in the number of people sent to prison for drug crimes. Maricopa has the longest average prison sentences — nearly five years — of any county in the state.
Today, Arizona has the fourth-highest imprisonment rate in the country — we lock up a greater share of our citizens than any state except for Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Last year, Arizona taxpayers spent more than $1 billion on prisons. A few years ago, we even had to pay $3 million in damages to a private prison for not filling enough beds.
As Arizona has increasingly invested in a broken “tough on crime” prison strategy, most other states are figuring out how to reduce crime while shrinking the size of their prison populations. In the last 10 years, 32 states have reduced crime and imprisonment at the same time. Violent crime has fallen twice as fast in those 32 states as it did in Arizona.
If more prison isn’t the solution, what will reduce harm and keep our community safe?
So many of the calls I received as an officer were health issues related to substance abuse in some way. Yet, when we lock up someone selling drugs, it doesn’t improve public safety — it just creates a job opening for someone else to take their place. We must reduce drug-related crime by addressing the demand for drugs, including the mental health issues that drive many people to addiction.
I do see some promising efforts in our community. The Tempe Police Department is working to prevent and de-escalate mental health crises before they become crimes. They are training all of their officers in mental health first aid and crisis-intervention training. On mental health-related calls, their officers partner with professional clinicians through C.A.R.E. 7. They support victims so the victims will talk to the police instead of taking matters into their own hands. And Tempe PD rewards officers for preventing serious crime, rather than encouraging low-level arrests and citations that don’t improve public safety.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I know that we cannot arrest and incarcerate our way out of this problem. We should use more effective treatment to get at the root of crime. We should expand training to stop mental health crises from leading to crime. We should make it easier, not harder, for people with convictions to find a job and an apartment so they stay away from crime. And we can follow the lead of other states building stronger communities with smaller prison populations.
We need to change our approach. Let’s start thinking outside the prison cell.
Officer Jack Wilborn (Ret.) served as a Reserve Police Officer with the Glendale Police Department. He is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, judges, and prosecutors who support criminal justice solutions that will improve public safety.
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