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Posted on: August 12, 2013

County Attorney Responds to Attorney General Eric Holder’s Proposals on Sentencing Reform

PHOENIX, AZ (August 12, 2013) – U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s proposal to reduce the number of non-violent drug offenders who are sent to federal prison aims at a worthy goal yet misses the mark by sidestepping Congress, according to Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery. Under a new policy outlined by Holder today, federal prosecutors will be prohibited from identifying a specific quantity of drugs when drafting indictments against certain low level drug offenders to avoid triggering mandatory federal sentences that could otherwise send these offenders to prison.

“While it is certainly possible to focus laws and sentences on the most violent and repeat offenders as we have proven in Arizona, this should be a cooperative effort between the executive and legislative branches of government,” remarked County Attorney Montgomery. “Instead, by ordering prosecutors to ignore evidence, the approach outlined by Mr. Holder is yet another unfortunate example of the Obama administration undermining the rule of law,” he added.

Montgomery points to Arizona’s sentencing guidelines, which were changed by the legislature to target violent and repeat felons for incarceration while offering drug treatment, probation and other diversion programs for most first and second time drug offenders. The results have been dramatic. Between 1994 and 2009, reported crime in Arizona plummeted by 17.7 percent. After steadily increasing for years, the state’s prison population began declining, reflecting the success of diversion programs in preventing low-level offenders from transitioning to full time criminal careers. As a consequence of targeting serious criminals for incarceration, Arizona’s prison population has become increasingly violent, with roughly 95% of all inmates classified as either repeat or violent felony offenders, according to a 2010 analysis.

“Simply put, in Arizona the right people are in prison for the right reasons,” Montgomery said. “Most importantly, we achieved these results by changing our laws – not ignoring them.”

In addition to lower crime rates, Arizona’s sentencing guidelines have yielded substantial cost savings. The same 2010 study found that 3,100 additional repeat offenders were incarcerated since 2005 who would have otherwise been released under previous sentencing guidelines. Instead of being free to commit an average of just under one felony per month, these defendants were serving sentences averaging 33 months. That equates to more than 98,000 prevented crimes. Assuming 90 percent of those offenses would have been property crimes at an average cost of $1,900, the study calculates a savings of $167.7 million. The remaining 10 percent, which would have been violent crimes with an average cost of $20,000 each, yields a savings of $196 million.

Arizona’s current sentencing guidelines began to take shape some thirty-five years ago, when the state eliminated indeterminate sentencing policies that frequently led to racially uneven results as well as the early release of many violent offenders. Along with many other states, Arizona enacted specific minimum and maximum sentences for serious felonies and enhanced sentences for aggravating circumstances like previous offenses and crimes committed on probation. A second wave of reforms in the mid-90s required violent offenders serve at least 85 percent of their sentences and required first and second time non-violent drug offenders to receive probation and drug treatment instead of prison.

Following Arizona’s lead, other states including Texas, Mississippi, New York, New Jersey and Ohio have adopted similar reforms with similar results. “Attorney General Holder would do well to follow the legislative-driven model Arizona and other states have followed in tailoring punishments to fit specific crimes,” Montgomery said. “Instead, he has issued a quick-fix policy change that could easily be reversed by a subsequent administration.”

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