Balancing Arizona's Budget by Reducing Prison Populations
The neoliberal nonsense of austerity and deficit hysteria is overwhelming a poorer America. It has gotten so bad that Arizona is cutting medical benefits for the poor. But assuming for the sake of argument there is value in gutting state budgets, can Arizona save money by spending less than 11% of its budget on corrections? And if Arizona decided to cut spending on corrections, would Arizonans still be safe?
For the following reasons, I say without question yes. Arizona would be better off in reforming prison sentences and keeping the savings to provide health care for our poor or help reduce the annual budget deficit.
America in general has too large a prison population. But Arizona in comparison to other states has even a disproportionally large prison population. Washington state has about half the prison population of Arizona, while Massachusetts has about a quarter the prison population of Arizona. Both Washington and Massachusetts have roughly the same population as Arizona. Despite that fact, Arizona's violent crime rate is much higher than Washington's violent crime rate and similar to Massachusetts' violent crime rate.
Assuming Washington has it exactly right, 18,000 inmates for a population of 6.5 million, how much money could Arizona save if it cut its prison population from over 40,000 to approximately 20,000 or half its current level? According to an article in the Tucson Citizen, the annual budget for the Arizona Department of Corrections is $900,000,000.00, or almost a billion dollars as of 2009. I understand that cutting the prison population in half would not necessarily equal $450,000,000.00 is savings, but if it did or was close to that, what would that mean to the overall Arizona budget?
According to a story in the East Valley Tribune by Howard Fischer, the current yearly budget deficit is $1.1 billion, so cutting our prison population in half- in line with Washington's per capita prison population- would eliminate approximately half of the Arizona budget deficit. Who knows, maybe with a better state economy and smarter sentencing, Arizona's violent crime would fall 25% to be line with Washington's violent crime rate.