Originally published Saturday, January 11, 2020 at 09:13p.m.

Arizona’s prisons are crowded places, and if trends hold, they’re going to get a lot more crowded as the state continues to grow. A report in 2018 by the bipartisan political organization FWD.us said Arizona had the fourth highest imprisonment rate in the country, behind Louisiana, Oklahoma and Mississippi.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the report argues Arizona’s prisons have expanded not because of an increase in crime or population, but because we’ve gotten tougher on non-violent criminals.

FBI data shows Arizona had double-digit decreases in the percentage of property and violent crimes from 2000 to 2017. Meanwhile, the state’s prison population grew from 26,000 inmates to 42,000 during that same period. That’s twice as fast as the state’s general population.

Here’s where things get interesting: People sentenced to prison for non-violent offenses went up by 80% between 2000 and 2017. More Arizonans were sent to prison in 2017 for non-violent drug offenses than all violent crimes combined. And when it comes to first-time felons, most of them were sentenced to hard time for non-violent crimes including possession, distribution or manufacturing of drugs, driving under the influence, burglary or vehicle theft.

The tough-on-crime folks among us may argue that these are positive trends that will ultimately act as a crime deterrent. And we’ve certainly seen lower crime rates, at least locally. Despite growing by 1,100 residents in 2018, Lake Havasu City saw a 27.66% decline in its crime rate, and that followed a 15.2% decline from the year before.

However, it’s a legitimate question to ask if there’s more that we could be doing as a society to keep people out of prison in the first place. (If you’re not convinced by humanitarian appeals, consider a fiscal one: The FWD.us report noted that if Arizona could reduce its incarceration rate to match Utah’s, the state could save enough money to cover a 20% raise for teachers.)

Enter Walter Blackman. The Snowflake Republican has introduced a bill that would create a new “pre-arrest diversion program,” which would allow misdemeanor suspects to avoid an arrest record while still paying their debts to society.

House Bill 2070 would allow cities and counties to create a community service program for adult suspects in nonviolent misdemeanor offenses. To qualify, the suspects would be required to admit to the offenses, and they couldn’t have a prior arrest record. If accepted, the suspects would be required to perform community service and pay restitution if any is to be had.

A pre-arrest diversion program would apply to offenses such as disorderly conduct, theft of less than $50 in property, underage drinking, possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana, selling liquor to a minor and criminal trespassing.

If some of this sounds familiar, it should. Lake Havasu City is already pretty familiar with criminal diversion programs. Havasu’s veterans treatment court has had more than 300 veterans participate in the program since it started seven years ago. The court boasts an ultra-low recidivism rate (that is, the percent of inmates who are arrested again after being released) of 4.8%. Compare that to the national recidivism rate of about 83%.

If the veterans treatment court is so effective at keeping a specialized population out of jail, then why not apply those same principals to the rest of our criminal justice system?

There’s a lot of common sense in Blackman’s bill, but unfortunately there are also a lot of unanswered questions — most notably, how much it will cost to create new bureaucracies to track such a program. As Lake Havasu City Police Chief Dan Doyle points out, these kinds of programs require additional resources and extra staffing, but the bill doesn’t specify where those resources would come from.

We hope state legislators address those issues of funding so that Blackman’s attempt at necessary reforms can get the public airings they deserve.

— Today’s News-Herald