Dispatches From The Carceral State

carcel state

Carceral: adjective, car·cer·al \ ˈkär-sə-rəl: relating to or suggesting a jail or prison, such as the 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, 76 Indian Country jails, and hundreds of other military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and territorial prisons currently operating in the United States of America, AKA the freest nation on earth.

Item #1 – Arizona’s war on women

Women have become the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. incarcerated population. In what will surprise to no one with even a passing familiarity with mass incarceration in this state, the change in women’s state prison incarceration rates has been much smaller in some states, like California and Maine, and far more dramatic in Arizona.

women AZ incarceration graph

Item #2 – APAAC’s war on truth

This March, the taxpayer-funded Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council (APAAC) released the 4th edition of its “Prisoners in Arizona” report. Current APAAC Chairperson and Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk  lauded the report for supposedly proving that Arizona prisons are “filled with repeat and violent offenders.”

This is a truly curious assertion, due to the fact that the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC) itself states that,

  • 53.8% of Arizona prisoners are in prison for the first time.
  • 21.7% of all Arizona inmates are currently in prison for drug offenses – the highest percentage of all categories of incarcerated offenders. (This includes the 198 people in prison for marijuana possession only. In comparison, ADOC currently houses 150 people convicted of domestic violence.)

Back in 2011, the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice debunked a previous edition of APAAC’s “Prisoners in Arizona” report point-by-point, proving among other things that the report conflates the definition of  “repeat” and “violent” offenders, artificially inflates the number of people classified as “dangerous, violent, or sexual offenders,” and falsely asserts that Arizona’s high incarceration rate is responsible for a drop in crime. The 4th edition of “Prisoners in Arizona” is no better, and might even be worse. Its principal author, John Lott, Jr., is an academic fraud who published a paper in December in which he claimed that undocumented immigrants in Arizona are at least 146% more likely to be convicted of a crime than other Arizonans. This claim is completely false, as it rests on the ridiculous notion that that all deportable, non-US citizens are undocumented immigrants. They aren’t, of course. A huge proportion of them are legal immigrants who violate the terms of tourist visas, work visas, or Green Cards.

Also, one more thing about this “report.” Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery funded Lott’s “research” with RICO funds, which are public dollars raised through civil asset forfeiture and  intended for things like crime victim assistance, substance abuse prevention, and gang violence intervention; “pretty much anything other than promoting the legislative agenda of Arizona’s elected County Attorneys,” said Caroline Isaacs, Program Director for American Friends Service Committee-Arizona.

Item #3 – America’s war on racial equality

The United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent issued a report in 2016 recommending that the government of the United States make reparations to African-Americans as amends for America’s history of racism, racial terror, and mass incarceration. Among its findings:

  • From an early age African-Americans are “treated by the State as a dangerous criminal group and face a presumption of guilt rather than of innocence.”
  • Excessive control and supervision targeting all levels of the lives of African-Americans.
  • Racially based patterns of arrests without justification, detentions without legal counsel, and at times deadly physical abuse against African-Americans committed by members of the Chicago Police Department.
  • The over-representation of African-Americans in federal and state prisons, and disproportionately high incarceration rates for African-American men and women.
  • Federal and state use of mass incarceration as a system of racial control, in much the same way Jim Crow laws were used in previous decades.
  • Inadequate conditions of detention, and serious barriers to detainees accessing physical and mental health treatment.
  • A strong correlation between race and imposition of the death penalty. (African Americans represent 41.7% of the U.S. death row population, and 34.6% of defendants executed since 1976.)

Item #4 – The Carceral State’s war on our wallets

Finally, according to a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative (If you follow this blog and don’t donate to them, you really should. Their work is priceless), America’s continuing addiction to mass incarceration costs U.S. taxpayers $182 billion every year. This is more than the annual federal discretionary budget for food & agriculture, science, energy & environment, health, and transportation combined.

costs of mass incarceration

Coda – Larry Krasner’s war on injustice

Viva Larry Krasner! As Philadelphia’s new District Attorney, he is making an unprecedented effort to put a stake in the heart of mass incarceration.

– Joel Feinman

Pima County Attorney plea agreements punish crack far harsher than powder cocaine

Pima County Attorney plea policy

The biggest racial disparity in the sentences handed down to drug offenders is for crack-related crimes. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 79% of 5,669 crack offenders sentenced in 2009 were black, versus 10% who were white and 10% who were Hispanic. For decades, state and federal sentencing laws have punished crack offenses far more harshly than powder cocaine offenses. Before 2010, federal law contained a 100:1 disparity; crack offenders faced a 10-year mandatory minimum for carrying 10 grams of the drug, while the same penalty would not apply to a powder-cocaine offender unless they were caught with 1,000 grams.

Thankfully, in 2010 President Obama signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced the crack/powder cocaine federal sentencing disparity to 18:1. While the FSA did not conclusively end racially tinged disparities in federal drug sentencing laws, it was a step in the right direction. What the FSA did not address, and what no federal or state sentencing reform law can address, are the racial disparities involved in plea polices.

Elected prosecutors play a large – and largely unnoticed – role in exacerbating and maintaining our system of mass incarceration both locally and across the nation. The prosecutor’s total control over the plea agreement process dictates which defendants go to trial, and the lengths of prison terms for the 95% of defendants who give up their right to a trial and plead guilty.

Yet plea agreement policies are often shrouded in secrecy. Almost all prosecutors consider their process of deciding which defendants get which kinds of pleas “work product,” which makes plea policies impervious to Freedom of Information Act requests and disclosure motions. Thus, plea negotiations occur in seclusion from the light of accountability. But sometimes, the sunlight can penetrate.

The Pima Liberator has obtained an undated copy of the Pima County Attorney Narcotics Unit “plea policy guidelines.” These guidelines were set by Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall, and they dictate to her line prosecutors which kinds of plea agreements they are allowed to offer to which kinds of offenders.


Per the Pima County Attorney’s own plea guidelines, there is an almost 3:1 disparity between how much crack and how much powder cocaine will cause that office to require a defendant to serve prison time for possessing drugs for sale. It is also worth noting that the Pima County Attorney remains far more interested in sending low-level crack dealers to prison than people who sell pills like Oxycodone and Percocet, despite the increasingly fatal effects these pills are having in Pima County.

The Pima County Attorney has never publicized or explained her insistence on a nearly 3:1 crack/powder cocaine prison disparity, and considering the historic opacity of the process used to justify which defendants go to prison, it is highly unlikely she will do so now. But like so many other aspects of our criminal justice system, this plea policy raises serious questions about who we are sending to prison, and why. Finally, the dictates of plea policy clarifies a truth which those working in the criminal justice system have long known; that the County Attorney considers themselves and not judges the final arbiter of who, in their own language, “must serve prison time,” and for how long. This is further evidence – not that any more was needed – that in today’s criminal justice system power over freedom vs. imprisonment, and even life vs. death lies almost exclusively with the prosecutor.

– Joel Feinman

New study finds 39% of American prisoners do not belong behind bars

Mass incarceration in Arizona

Per the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, 39% of the 1.46 million Americans currently locked away in state and federal prisons – about 576,000 people – are being incarcerated with little public safety rationale.

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According to the study, these 576,000 prisoners could be more appropriately sentenced to an alternative to prison or a shorter prison stay, with limited impact on public safety. Releasing these people from prison would save taxpayers $20 billion per year, and almost $200 billion over 10 years: enough money to employ 270,000 new police officers, or 360,000 probation officers, or 327,000 school teachers. Among the study’s other findings:

  • Alternatives to prison are likely to be more effective sentences than incarceration for about 364,000 lower-level offenders – 25% of the current U.S. prison population. Researchers have shown that prison does little to rehabilitate these kinds of offenders, and that incarceration often increases recidivism in such cases.
  • 212,000 prisoners – 14% of the total prison population – have already served sufficiently long prison terms and could be released within the next year with little risk to public safety.
  • 79% of U.S. prisoners suffer from either drug addiction or mental illness, and 40% suffer from both. Alternative interventions such as treatment would be more effective sanctions for many of these people.

– Joel Feinman