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May 19, 2004 - The Tucson Citizen (AZ)

Guest Opinion: Nonviolent Offenders Need Training, Not Prison

By Ricketta A. Pointer

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Arizona's prison population is at an all-time high with more than 31,000 prisoners.

Among them, 59 percent are nonviolent offenders, including 20 percent convicted of drug-related offenses.

Yet while the state of Arizona approves more and more money for prisons, it cannot afford child-care subsidies for 8,000 working citizens who need them.

Arizona pays about $20,500 a year to imprison each inmate. By comparison, child-care assistance for a low-income working family averages $6,000 to $7,000.

So for each nonviolent offender in prison, nearly three families lose out on child-care assistance.

In turn, what do family members do? Some turn to illegal acts to make ends meet. Others work two jobs, losing time with their families. And some even leave their children at home unsupervised.

Granted, prison cells are essential for dangerous criminals. And though the U.S. has experienced a decline in violent crime, Arizona last year ranked seventh among states for murder and 12th for crimes against persons.

But while Arizonans want these kinds of offenders locked away, most reasonable residents would resist the high price we pay to imprison 16,000 nonviolent offenders, including more than 5,600 convicted of drug offenses.

The cost for this trend has been enormous in more ways than one. The state prison population has doubled since 1991. And the Department of Corrections budget, which hit $580 million last year, is set for $637 million this year.

Arizona needs to reform its sentencing guidelines and find alternative, less expensive ways to penalize nonviolent offenders instead of continuing to spend more money on prisons.

And in order to eradicate recidivism, the state should educate such inmates so they have a positive foundation when they ultimately re-enter society.

Officials say prisons are used not only for punishment, but also for rehabilitation. Yet Arizona no longer provides vocational classes for inmates. Prisoners' families either pay for such classes, or prisons provide training to serve the facility, not the outside world.

For drug offenders, a "transitioning" program has been implemented but doesn't begin until 90 days before an inmate is scheduled for release. Such efforts should be under way as soon as an offender is imprisoned.

Once incarcerated, offenders are exposed to violence and sometimes to humiliation and mistreatment by guards. Inmates meet worse criminals and learn about crimes against persons.

If they violate some rule during their time in prison, they lose the opportunity to go to school for up to a year. This is what Arizona's Department of Corrections disciplinary system deems appropriate punishment for violation of a rule. Thus inmates make no progress, so they leave prison worse off than before.

But while we fail to educate, we are quick to incarcerate. We must let our legislators know we need alternatives to prison for those who commit victimless crimes, and we need educators and counselors to rehabilitate inmates.

In Buckeye, two violent felons took control of the prison kitchen, then the guard tower, Jan. 18 through Feb. 1, the longest prison hostage incident in U.S. history.

The ensuing attacks in this overcrowded prison vividly illustrated the dangers inherent in the system.

Arizona has abolished parole, home arrest, work furlough and other transitioning programs. Such programs would save a lot of taxpayer money, and they would help nonviolent offenders get on track.

Prisoners are people, too. Most will be back in society someday, and I would prefer that they be released as educated and enlightened individuals, not hardened criminals who have just spent years perfecting their criminal skills.

Some of you may think this doesn't concern you, but it does. If you have families, if you value a safe society or if you care where your tax dollars go, the prison issue affects you.

More tax dollars should be spent on our children's education systems and helping families that can't make ends meet.

We all should work together to encourage government reform of sentencing policies, alleviation of overcrowding and state flexibility to spend money where it will be most effective.

It is not through incarceration for all crimes that we will make our world a better place. Only through education of all individuals is the path to a bright future possible.

Ricketta A. Pointer ( is pursuing a master's degree in human resource management through the on-line American Intercontinental University, with a focus on prison reform.

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