Arizona's budget troubles could prompt legislators to consider changing criminal sentencing laws to reduce or slow the costly growth of the state's prison population, two legislators said this week, the Associated Press reports. Rep. Bill Konopnicki, a Republican, said the fear of many of his colleagues' of being labeled soft on crime has kept the legislature from taking up the issue. “We cannot afford the current policies that we have, nor is there the will in the Legislature to change it,” Konopnicki said.
Still, he and Republican Rep. Cecil Ash aid that could change in 2011 due to steady increases in prison costs as the state is trying to close big budget shortfalls. “Between policy and budget, we are headed to a major crash,” said Konopnicki, who will leave the legislature in January. “The financial crisis is going to cause some people to take a good look at what we're doing.” Arizona has tough criminal sentencing laws, many implemented in 1993, and the state's prison costs are now 10 times what they were 30 years ago, while the state's population has doubled during the same period. Ash heads a House committee studying possible sentencing changes. “We have a lot of good ideas out there,” Ash said. “I sense there's a will to do things differently.” Options identified by legislative budget analysts to cope with rising prison costs include diverting some offenders to treatment programs and probation, releasing some prisoners early, and returning fewer parolees to prison for violations.