By Sam Brodey
In his inaugural speech in January, Arizona’s new Republican governor, Doug Ducey, struck a budget hawk’s tone while staring down a $1.5 billion budget shortfall. “Fair warning: The budget will not meet with general approval among special interests.” he said. “I can assure you that a more efficient government is not only necessary, but sensible.” But there was one special interest group that must have been pleased when Ducey rolled out his budget proposal: the private prison industry.
Ducey’s austere budget plan slashed $384 million in state programs, including $75 million in funding for Arizona’s public universities. But it earmarked $5 million for a new, 3,000-bed private prison that even the state’s most notorious law enforcement official, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, argues is unnecessary.
Last week, Arizona’s state corrections director, Charles Ryan, went to the state Legislature to pitch the plan, claiming the new prison would accommodate a projected increase in inmates. Arizona already has the sixth-highest incarceration rate in the United States—Massachusetts, which has roughly the same population as Arizona, incarcerates one-fourth as many people. State experts blame draconian sentencing laws, such as the requirement that nonviolent offenders serve 85 percent of their sentences behind bars. In a statement to the Arizona Republic, Daniel Scarpinato, a Ducey spokesman, cast the plan as a safety imperative. “State prison beds are at capacity. More prisoners require more beds, and the governor is not going to risk public safety during a budget shortfall,” he said.