This is part one in a three part interview with Arizona Representative Cecil Ash concerning the very important topic of reforming the Arizona penal system and changing how sentencing is done in Arizona. Those who wish to help may contact Rep. Ash at his legislative office at 602-926-3160 (email@example.com), or through his webpage at www.cecilash.com
Rep. Ash is a Republican from Arizona's 18th Legislative District. He is from Mesa, Arizona, and before becoming a member of the Arizona House of Representatives, he was an attorney practicing in real estate and criminal law. As a Maricopa County Public Defender from 1990 to 1995, Rep. Ash defended numerous major felonies, including defending first degree murder cases.
I first noticed Rep. Ash in an article in the Arizona Republic (Arizona prisoner reforms working, study says) in which he stated he introduced "evidence based reform" legislation. I thought it was particularly interesting that a Republican from Mesa would advocate legislation designed to reduce penal consequences. Rep. Ash has kindly agreed to this interview in which he will explain exactly what evidence based reform means and why the public should embrace it.
1) Rep. Ash, thank you for agreeing to this interview. What motivated you to propose sentencing reform legislation and introduce legislation in the Arizona House? I can't imagine that this topic is politically popular, or is it popular among your constituents?
Rep. Ash: You're correct. It's not necessarily popular with constituents. I ran for office to balance the budget. But as I was sitting on the judiciary committee hearing bills, I began to remember my experiences as a public defender. I remember having clients who posed no threat to the public who were harshly sentenced to long prison terms, and I thought, at this time of budgetary constraint, maybe we should re-examine who we're incarcerating, and for how long. It has been several years since the implementation of our current criminal code, and it's time to assess how successful it's been.
2) Do you believe that too many Arizonans, and Americans in general, are in prison?
Rep. Ash: The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country -- by far. It has 5% of the world's population, and 23% of the world's prisoners. One in every 33 citizens is under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system (either in prison, jail, on probation or parole). One in every 100 persons is actually incarcerated. Washington State has roughly 6.5 million people, about the same as Arizona. Yet Washington has only 18,000 inmates, whereas Arizona has 40,000+ inmates. Massachusetts has 6.3 million residents, and has only a little over 11,000 inmates. Clearly, we have a disproportionate number of inmates vis-á-vis our population.
3) What exactly does evidence based reform mean? Does it simply mean shorter prison sentences and probation terms across the board for all crimes?
Rep. Ash: No. It means having data-driven policies. It means looking at what social science has accomplished in terms of changing behavior. For example, formerly, a person under probation supervision might miss an appointment, and the probation officer would say, "Don't do that again." The next time, they would say, "Now, you're really going to get in trouble." After somewhere between eight and 15 violations, they would run out of patience and "violate" the probationers, sending them to prison.
What social science has taught us is that if the first time a probationer fails to show up you send him to jail for the weekend, he's not likely to fail to show up again. In other words, using intermediate sanctions is more successful than allowing multiple screw-ups and then imposing a very harsh consequence. In addition, we've learned that there are a number of social constructs that can predict aberrant behavior.
By applying risk assessments early on in the process, we can better predict what sanctions work best with various individuals. The evidence comes from studies that have been made, or from the experiences of other jurisdictions that have run successful programs.
But a more important corollary question is "On what evidence is the existing system based?" Who decided and how were the current sentences established? Who decided, for example, that someone who possesses child pornography should receive a felony and serve 10 years in prison for each picture, rather than a misdemeanor and a large fine and probation as in some other states? When people question the evidence that we are using, I want them to present the evidence for justifying the status quo.
4) For the average Arizonan, is evidence based reform something that will make them safer even if it means possibly shorter sentences for some crimes? What I mean by that is even if sentencing reform has a net economic benefit for the state as a whole, is there a danger that Arizonans will be less safe than they are now?
Rep. Ash: First of all, no one who constitutes a serious danger to the public is likely to be eligible for the suggested reforms. However, an evidence-based program will result in further decreases in crime. Lengthy incarceration can be a training ground for new and more sophisticated criminals. The longer someone is incarcerated, the more difficulty he will have re-adjusting to society. One formerly successful businessman who was incarcerated for drug use told me that he had learned five new ways to steal an identify while serving his time. Another inmate said he went in with an associate’s degree in crime, and came out with a doctorate.
Right now inmates have little incentive to either better themselves or to improve their conduct. Formerly, we offered incentives for good behavior, or for successful educational or behavioral modification programs that gave inmates the hope that if they worked hard and changed their behavior, they might get out earlier. Those incentives no longer exist. An incentivized release program would not only make our prisons safer, but would decrease the number of inmates, and allow additional resources to be used for further educational and rehabilitation opportunities. It's been said that "education is the cheapest form of crime prevention" --both for the inmate, and for those of us involved in policy decisions.
(see part two of interview)