The cost of running Arizona's overcrowded prison system will soar in the next decade, according to projections that show an additional $3 billion will be needed if the state continues to lock away criminals at today's rate.
The prison population is expected to grow by 52 percent during the next 10 years, according to a report released Tuesday by the Council of State Governments Justice System, a nonpartisan organization.
Taxpayers will have to pay an additional $3 billion to build and operate more prisons to handle such a large increase in the prison population, the report states.
Jim Austin, a nationally recognized prison system expert who directed the report, said population growth in Arizona's prisons ranks among the top four states in the country.
"The situation that Arizona faces is particularly challenging when compared to other states," Austin said.
While other states such as Texas and neighboring California have similar problems, Austin noted that "the growth in Arizona by far overshadows other states."
One reason for the sharp rise is the state's get-tough attitude on all types if crime, including low-level offenses such as driving while intoxicated, he said.
Longer sentences, a high rate of prisoners returning to jail and the rising number of women inmates have added to the population boom.
Sixty percent of all criminals admitted to prison in Arizona come from the Phoenix-Mesa area, according to the report.
Currently, the state houses nearly 35,000 prisoners. But that number is expected to grow to 56,660 by 2017 if nothing changes, according to the study. Already feeling the crunch, the state has about 4,000 more prisoners than the system was built to handle.
Women account for a large portion of the growth, according to the study. The number of women admitted in Arizona prisons increased 60 percent in the past six years -- roughly twice the rate of male inmates.
The expected growth of the state's prison population significantly outpaces the projected population growth of Arizona overall. During the next decade, the state's population is expected to grow by 26.2 percent. To help find solutions, Arizona has been selected as one of five states that will participate in the Council of State Governments' justice reinvestment program.
Staff from the organization will work closely with state lawmakers to prepare for the rush of inmates.
Legislators disagree on how to handle the problem. One idea being pushed by some Republican lawmakers is to build more private prisons. Some believe that could help reduce the costs.
Other potential solutions include offering more earlyrelease programs for criminals who complete rehabilitation programs and reducing minimum sentences for some crimes.
But lawmakers have been more willing to back measures that increase jail time rather than shorten it.
For example, Sen. Jim Waring, R-Phoenix, said the report won't detract him from clamping down on drunken drivers.
Since taking office in 2003, Waring has introduced about 15 pieces of legislation relating to state DUI laws. Currently, a bill is under consideration that would mandate 30 days in jail for drivers convicted of extreme DUI.
"I understand our prisons are overcrowded, but they (drunk drivers) kill more than 500 people a year in Arizona," Waring said. "Just because they're non-violent criminals doesn't mean they can't kill you."
Still, Austin said it will take more than private prisons to meet the needs in Arizona.
"You're not going to solve a $3 billion-dollar problem with privatization," he said.
He said states often don't save much money by choosing to use private prisons.
Austin has worked as a consultant to several large private prison companies, including Correction Corporation of America -- a firm expected to bid for an Arizona contract to house 3,000 Arizona prisoners. The Arizona Department of Corrections also is preparing to bid for the contract. It would be the first time in state history the department has been allowed to bid on a publicly issued contract.
Sen. Bob Burns, R-Peoria, dismissed the notion that private prisons don't save money. Burns, who heads the Senate Appropriations Committee, has been a strong supporter of private prisons.
"I can show you other studies that show privatizations save money," he said. Burns argues that DOC can hide some of the administrative costs associated with housing prisoners because it is a state agency.
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