Pima County Residents Owe $126 Million For Mass Incarceration

Taxing away mass incarceration

The staggering costs of mass incarceration

Mass incarceration costs Arizona taxpayers money – a lot of money. According to a comprehensive new report published by the American Friends Service Committee, the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) annual budget is now over $1 billion, and makes up 11% of the state’s general fund. That’s an increase of 28.4% over ten years, during which time Arizona’s spending on schools, economic security, and even public safety has decreased. Arizona ranks fourth highest among all 50 states in the percentage of total general fund expenditures on corrections.

Arizona budget spending changes

All Arizona taxpayers pay for DOC, but not all Arizonans make the decisions that drive mass incarceration. On the contrary those decisions rest with just fifteen prosecutors, elected at the county level who have no term limits, and some of whom have held office for decades. They have near total discretion to ease or aggravate the problem of mass incarceration in Arizona. But neither they nor even their voters pay much of the costs of the decisions they make – everybody else does. It is a classic example of the economic theory of negative externalities, meaning the person responsible for a particular action does not bear the cost of that action. Much like nuclear waste, the $1 billion expense of mass incarceration in Arizona harms us all, but it is generated by a very few.

Making mass incarcerators pay their way

Last year Michael McLaughlin, an economic researcher out of Washington University in St. Louis, proposed an intriguing solution to the negative externality problem of mass incarceration. McLaughlin’s paper, “Using a Pigouvian Tax to Reduce Incarceration,” argues that,

Local actors have considerable discretion whether to conduct a search, make an arrest, charge a person with a crime, classify a crime as a misdemeanor or felony, or issue a lengthy prison sentence…One way to correct this negative externality is with a Pigouvian tax. Charging local governments on a per-prisoner basis for the cost of incarceration could induce local actors to internalize the externality and reduce the number of prison admissions.”

A “Pigouvian tax,” named after English economist Arthur Pigou, is just a fancy way of describing a local tax that would apply to the party that generates negative externalities, and would require them to pay the costs of those externalities. An example would be taxing industrial polluters the cost of cleaning up pollution and treating medical issues it causes.

According to DOC, as of February 2017, 12.6% of Arizona prisoners were from Pima County.

Feb 2017 DOC county numbers

If we were to fund the $1 billion Arizona DOC budget with a Pigouvian tax, Pima County residents would pay an additional $126 million in county taxes.

I suspect that if a $126 million tax increase proposal came before the Pima County Board of Supervisors, it would be deeply unpopular. However that should not stop us from considering the justice of McLaughlin’s proposal. Why shouldn’t the people who drive mass incarceration be forced to pay for it, and forced to justify their policies when the economic fallout hits the taxpayers who elected them? Two of the fundamental tenets of conservative government are personal responsibility and paying your own way. Our elected officials, and indeed ourselves, should assume the responsibility of paying for the policies we advocate for. Perhaps it is only when we are required to pay for mass incarceration out of our own pockets that we will demand its end, loudly and permanently.

– Joel Feinman

Under LaWall administration Pima County incarceration rates swamp Maricopa

Pima County Attorney mass incarceration

Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall was first elected to office in 1996. In that time we have seen an explosion in the population of the Pima County jail, a growth even larger than what took place under Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County.

According to figures collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent nonprofit national research and policy organization, between 1970 and 2014 the Maricopa County Jail incarceration rate grew by 58% per 100,000 residents, while the Pima County Jail incarceration rate exploded by 210%. In 2014, the last year for which comprehensive numbers are available, Pima County actually had more people being held in its jail per 100,000 residents, 320, than Maricopa County had per 100,000 of its residents, 301.


The average length of a jail stay in Pima County has also increased dramatically, from 14 days in 1996 when Ms. LaWall was first elected to 23 days in 2014.


This vast increase in incarceration rates would be more comprehensible if Pima County was experiencing a historic crime wave, but according to Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, our state is enjoying record low crime rates. In an article they co-wrote and published in The Arizona Republic in December, 2015, Ms. LaWall and Mr. Montgomery told the people of Arizona that “Arizona crime rates [had fallen] to 40 – 50 year lows,” that violent crime was at its lowest level since 1971 and property crime at its lowest level since 1963, and that “the big news in Arizona is that we are outpacing the national decline [in crime] by a significant margin.”


At the same time as crime is falling, so are the number of people arrested. The Arizona Department of Public Safety reports that, from 2002 – 2013, the number of people arrested in Pima County fell by 30% – this at a time when Pima County’s population increased by 12%.

Our criminal justice system is not created and maintained by a deus ex machina. Real people decide every day who goes to jail and how long they stay there for. Every day the Pima County Attorney decides who to recommend bail for, who to try and hold in jail with very high or no bail, and what kinds of mandatory jail terms to offer in plea agreements. Until we start holding them accountable, until we start demanding answers for why we have exploding incarceration rates at a time of historically low crime and arrest rates, the plague of mass incarceration and the erosion of our civil liberties will only worsen.

– Joel Feinman

4 criminal justice reform bills headed to AZ Legislature

legislative bill

A bipartisan coalition of groups, including The Goldwater Institute, The American Friends Service Committee and The American Civil Liberties Union have worked together to create a policy package intended to save taxpayer money, reduce recidivism, and make Arizona criminal laws more just.

The Arizona Senate Judiciary Committee will hear these four bills this Thursday, February 2, at 9am. The following AZ Senators sit on that Committee – contact them over the legislature’s request to speak (RTS) system, or email or call them to make your voice heard about the pressing need for criminal justice reform in Arizona.

Nancy Barto (R) – nbarto@azleg.gov; 602-926-5766
Judy Burges (R) – jburges@azleg.gov; 602-926-5861
Lupe Contreras (D)- lcontreras@azleg.gov; 602-926-5284
Andrea Dalessandro (D) – adalessandro@azleg.gov; 602-926-5342
Frank Pratt (R) – fpratt@azleg.gov; 602-926-5761
Martin Quezada (D) – mquezada@azleg.gov; 602-926-5911
Bob Worsley (R) – bworsley@azleg.gov; 602-926-5760

SB1069 / HB2291
This bill allows people to petition courts to expunge their conviction 5 years after they have been released, as long as they have not had any additional violations. This allows ex-offenders greater access to jobs, increasing the probability they will remain productive members of society.

SB1071 / HB2290
This bill allows qualified non-violent ex-offenders to obtain a temporary, provisional license to work in specialized fields and increase their probability of obtaining stable employment. It provides the person the opportunity to demonstrate their skills and commitment without increasing risks for the employer.

SB1067 / HB2154
This bill provides appropriate penalties for technical parole violations that do not interrupt the reentry and reintegration process. Keeping people with technical parole violations out of prison allows them to maintain employment and sustain contact with their families and communities. This increases the probability that they will remain productive members of society.

This bill reduces the mandatory 85% time offenders must serve for less serious, non-violent offenses. If a person is determined rehabilitated prior to that 85% mark, they would be released to community supervision so that they may obtain employment and become productive taxpayers.

Pima County Law Enforcement emphasizes crisis intervention training

Mass incarceration in Arizona

Dozens of law enforcement officers from 8 different law enforcement agencies gathered in Tucson in December to participate in a week-long crisis intervention training course.

Trainings like these are an invaluable component of modern day law enforcement; they operate on the evidence-based premise that our community increasingly requires police to interact with people who are experiencing mental and behavioral health crises. In 2013, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department and the Tucson Police Department founded a joint unit, the Mental Health Support Team (MHST), to help ensure that individuals with mental health illnesses receive treatment and support, instead of a term of incarceration that can often exacerbate mental health issues.

The MHST Team and multi-agency crisis intervention training are exactly the kinds of law enforcement efforts our community should support and seek to expand, given the intractable link between incarceration rates and and mental illness. Approximately 60% of the men and women at the Pima County jail have a need for mental health treatment, which makes our jail the largest provider of mental health care in Pima County. According to the Arizona Department of Correction, as of November 2016, 11,595 of DOC’s 42,567 total inmates required ongoing mental health service – over 27% of Arizona’s entire prison population.

– Joel Feinman