Causes of Arizona’s High Incarceration Rates

In December 2016, The American Friends Service Committee published a report entitled A New Public Safety Framework for Arizona:  Charting a Path Forward.  The Report gave an overview of the Arizona sentencing laws that led to high rates of incarceration compared to other states.

One cause is mandatory sentencing according to A.R.S. § 13-702 through 707.  These laws have shifted the power of discretion in determining sentences from judges to prosecutors:

“The incentive is for prosecutors to stack as many charges as possible against the defendant in order to convince them to accept a plea to a lesser charge rather than take their case to trial. Trials are lengthy and expensive. Plea bargains are the “grease in the wheels” of the criminal justice system, ensuring that cases are adjudicated quickly. By bringing a high number of charges against a defendant, the prosecutor can credibly say that if the person were to take their case to trial and lose, they would be facing an extremely long sentence. Thus, the vast majority take the plea that is offered to them. In 2010, plea bargains accounted for 95.6 percent of all felony criminal convictions in Maricopa County; only 1.6 percent of felony criminal cases filed went to trial, according to court records.42 “Sentencing is nearly all done by plea bargaining instead of before a judge in open court,” said Pima County Public Defender Robert Hirsh, “The deal is always driven by the risk of a higher sentence.” Visit the original PDF here.

Another cause is harsh sentences for drug offenses.  The Report noted:

“In general, Arizona applies a much longer sentence for lower amounts of both possession and sales. For example, to qualify for a charge of possession for sale of marijuana, an individual would have to have 50lbs of the substance in Texas and 100lbs in Nevada. But possession of just 4lbs in Arizona is enough to charge for this category of “drug sales,” and can result in a minimum sentence of 4 years in prison. Yet, in Nevada, that same charge—triggered by having 25 times more marijuana— would earn the person just one year of prison time. Arizona’s drug laws treat the lowest-level sellers, most of whom are addicts, like major players in the drug market.

Many drug offenses, including possession with intent to sell, are Class 2 felonies regardless of the circumstances. This is just one felony class level below first-degree murder. Because of this, non-violent addict-sellers can get prison terms longer than some violent offenders.” First seen published on

Arizona sentencing laws are rigid and harsh. You need a defense attorney with decades of experience in negotiating favorable plea agreements for clients in order to shift the balance of power away from the prosecutors.

Check out the criminal practice areas from Gary L. Rohlwing Attorney At Law. Call the Law Offices of Gary L. Rohlwing for a free initial case consultation at (623) 937-1692.

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