PHOENIX — Every year Arizona taxpayers send more than $1.1 billion to the Department of Corrections.
Currently only three states in the nation house more people behind bars than right here in the Grand Canyon state.
"We didn't get to this problem overnight," said State Representative Walter Blackman over the phone.
Blackman and a group of lawmakers are taking a hard look at that problem. Blackman is currently working on a number of bills to address it beginning with pre and post release programs.
"We have a system right now that requires judges and prosecutors to place people in boxes rather than getting to the ‘why’ someone has committed a crime," said Blackman. He says a huge swath of those currently behind bars have been arrested for some kind of non violent drug offense.
The “why” can come from a number of places, socio economic background and addiction amongst others. When it comes to non violent drug offenders, Representative Blackman wants to see programs that provide counseling and treatment to prevent them from ending up back in jail.
He's also taking a stab at an idea that would allow inmates to earn early release through community service and education.
"Them being a willing participant of these programs they are able to earn possible release credits for that," said Blackman, who adds his bills will most likely be addressed next year.
According to FWD.US, imprisonment for drug possession between the year 2000 and 2017 jumped 142 percent in Arizona.
The number of people sentenced to prison for one of the least serious drug crimes, simple possession, has grown dramatically. In 2000, 1,414 people were admitted to prison for drug possession. By 2017, that number had more than doubled to 3,418 people.
FBI data shows property and violent crimes have decreased in the state by 44 percent and 12 percent during that same period. Research also shows that alternatives to incarceration are more effective than prison at reducing recidivism for most people and long prison sentences are ineffective as a crime control measure.
"We've seen sentences that appear to be extremely excessive," said Donna Leone Hamm.
As a former judge and Director for Middle Ground Prison Reform, Leone Hamm has been on the front lines of the issue since 1983.
"Diversion is important, preparation, juvenile diversion is important trying to keep as many people out of the system in the first place," said Hamm.
She says mass commutation like what's being seen in Oklahoma via a voter initiative would be a logistical nightmare here in Arizona, but baby steps are essential.
"There has to be a purpose involved where they're moving through that system with the goal in mind to never return," said Hamm. She added the less people housed in prison means more savings for taxpayers and allows for those funds to be spent on other critical programs and infrastructure.