Earlier this week, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey proposed closing a state prison in Florence.

While I know the prison system is expensive and flawed, closing one of the state prisons in Florence just isn’t the answer and will eventually cost taxpayers much more. By outsourcing state prisoners, the Arizona Department of Corrections will be at the mercy of large corporations hell-bent on making a profit on the backs of our convicted felons.

When prisoners are converted into paychecks in an open capitalist society, the people lose and the inmates suffer. Corporations turn state dollars into a system of budget cuts, elimination of programs and employee union busting.

The only motivation for large corporations to run a prison is profit.

I do believe Arizona needs to change a lot of things inside the Department of Corrections.

First of all, Arizona sends way too many people to prison.

Nationally, 737 people per 100,000 in population are sent to prison in the U.S.

Arizona’s incarceration rate is above the national average at 877 per 100,000 and is among the highest in the nation. In fact, Arizona has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the nation, with more than 42,500 people in custody in state prisons. Reports indicate that more than 62,000 people are in custody in the state once you add in county jails, federal prisons and youth offender programs.

That is a crazy and expensive number.

The first common sense answer to ease the stress inside the Department of Corrections is to lessen the number of inmates.

I’m not advocating a “free-for-all” or letting dangerous felons loose on the streets. Rather, we should be sending drug addicts to treatment centers instead of turning them into lifetime hardcore felons by sending them to prison for mild drug offenses.

Many of our state’s drug laws need to be reformed or completely eliminated. Marijuana, in any quantity, should be legalized. Permits and licenses for distributors, which will cost state fees, could turn the marijuana industry into a cash cow for the state while easing prison overcrowding at the same time.

Methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl offenses should remain serious crimes, but not marijuana.

An estimated 20% of all Arizona inmates are in prison for drug offenses. This is the highest percentage of all categories of incarcerated offenders. In all, 78% of inmates assessed at intake have significant substance abuse histories.

If the Florence state prison is closed, aides to the governor say some inmates will end up in private prisons where the state pays a per-day rate. But they also said some could be transferred to other facilities, including the adjacent Eyman Complex.

The state older prison in Florence houses 4,000 of the state’s 42,500 prisoners and the cost of bringing the facility up to snuff at $275 million (according to the governor) sounds like a bargain compared to losing control of the Department of Corrections to a private corporation.

The governor also proposes to place many prisoners in county jails, which will only burden each and every county. Counties are already having major issues running their jails. The shifting of prisoners from state to county will only create new problems at a more local level, including making prisoners into paychecks.

One thing I agree with Gov. Ducey on is focusing on rehabilitation and re-entry programs.

One of the craziest things that state corrections does is not properly prepare a prisoner for release after serving a sentence. Imagine being told that you are terminally ill and to get your affairs in order, then by some sort of miracle your condition is healed and you will continue to live. No one has taught you how to pull out of the mental state that you have prepared yourself for and you have to learn to live again.

Teaching prisoners how to live, work and cope outside the walls of that prison is the most important mission that the Department of Corrections can perform.

If a prisoner can learn to survive on the outside, they will no longer be a prisoner. If they don’t survive outside, they simply return over and over again.

“We know these programs work,” Ducey said. “This year we are doubling down on this successful model, to give more individuals their opportunity at a better choice and a better life.”

The largest mistake in the Arizona justice system is to handcuff Superior Court judges by mandated sentencing ranges with presumptive sentences proposed by the state Legislature for each category of crime.

This system basically tells the state’s very intelligent judges that they do not possess the knowledge to properly determine a sentence for someone convicted of a felony.

Limiting the kind of sentences a judge can hand out with these state mandates is an insult to the judge, the convicted criminal and our entire society. It places people in prisons for much longer than necessary in many cases.

Judges need to have latitude when it comes time for sentencing. There is a reason that they are sitting on the bench and the state Legislature needs to trust them to hand out the correct sentence for each case.

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Justice reporter Jim Headley can be reached at jheadley@pinalcentral.com.

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