Arizona’s incarceration rate has exploded over the last forty years. In 1978 our state incarcerated fewer than 150 people per 100,000 state residents. By 2016 our incarceration rate increased by 500%, to 901 people per 100,000 state residents.
By 2010 the racial disparities in our justice system reached crisis proportions. That year – the year of the most recent U.S. census – Arizona locked up Hispanics at almost 2 times the rate of Caucasians, Native Americans at 3.5 times the rate of Caucasians, and African-Americans at more than 5 times the rate of Caucasians.
If we look at the incarceration rates of all foreign countries and U.S. states per 100,000 residents, then Arizona has the 7th highest incarceration rate in the entire world. In fact, the top 34 spots belong to the United States. No foreign country makes the list until Turkmenistan, which has the world’s 35th highest per capita incarceration rate. Cuba is 44th, Russia is 49th, and Rwanda is 51st.
These statistics present us with a stark choice between two radically different world views. Either we are locking too many people behind bars, or Arizonans are the 7th most criminal people in the world. Either we imprison a shockingly disproportionate number of women, poor people, and people of color, or these people just naturally commit far more crime than the Caucasians who live in this state.
The United States has always been a great country, and the vast majority of Arizonans are decent, good, hard-working people. It is also the case that we should imprison murderers and rapists. We should go after people who break into our homes, and steal from us. But Arizona’s exploding prison population exemplifies the social plagues of mass incarceration and racial disparity run amok. The war on drugs and inhumane prosecution policies have blurred the lines between a felon and an addict, between poverty and malice, between a crime and a mistake. It is time to forge a new path. It is past time to remember what real justice means, and what it should look like.