Could sentencing reform save the state money, help justice system?

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PHOENIX - Arizona's prisons are bursting at the seams these days and lawmakers are grappling with how to pay for it all. More than 10 percent of the state's budget will go to corrections next year. That's expected to be around $1 billion. That's prompted some serious discussions and plans to legislate big changes.

Rep. Cecil Ash explains, "I think most politicians are inclined to run on the slogan of being 'tough on crime' and so as they increase the sentences for various crimes, it sounds like they are tougher on crime."

State Representative Cecil Ash is leading the charge for one solution, sentencing reform.

"Increasing sentences is not always the best way either to punish someone or the best way to protect society," Rep. Ash said.

The road to the ever growing prison population in Arizona began in the late 70's when lawmakers took away some of the powers judges had.

Mona Lynch, author of Sunbelt Justice explains, "In essence they cut off judicial discretion made mandatory minimums for a number of crimes, lengthened sentences and made them determinant, so there was less flexibility for judges on the front end of sentencing and then at the back end they started cutting back on ways for the prison to let people out."

Lynch has spent years studying our states system, currently sixth in the nation for incarceration and fourth in spending. She agrees with Ash, the key is reform.

"The issue is to incarcerate people who we are afraid of, not people we are mad at," Ash said. 

"Long terms only work as deterrents if criminals know about them," Lynch said. "So if you go out and commit a burglary how much time does that mean under the Arizona criminal code, most people don't know."

Ash is hoping for change in the state's sentencing within the year, putting more power back in the hands of the judges.

"Right now you can have a situation where a prosecutor out of law school two or three years has infinitely more power than a judge who may have been practicing 30 or 35 years," Ash said.

Lynch says the new slogan sums it all up, rather than tough on crime, it's "smart on crime", spending dollars where they'll have the most impact.