Women drug addicts who forge and steal are the fastest growing segment of Arizona’s prison population, raising concerns about the impact to their children and the ultimate cost to taxpayers.
Statistics from the state Department of Corrections show the number of women sent to prison annually has risen 75 percent since mid-1997, adding to overcrowding.
Some experts said the rise is tied to the state's population explosion and shift to more urban cities in some areas. But critics believe the increase is driven more by harsh sentencing laws than by a jump in the number of women criminals.
"What may be happening is women, five years ago, might have been doing the same types of crimes that really were too petty to go to prison," said Kevin Pranis, co-author of a study released last week by the national group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
The study concludes the largest percentage of women are incarcerated for drug convictions, fraud or theft. Three-fourths of women inmates were addicted to drugs or alcohol and nearly 25 percent of them had serious mental health problems, the study states.
Pranis and other critics said they believe most women inmates commit relatively minor crimes — such as selling small amounts of drugs or swiping their neighbors' checkbooks — to pay for their drug habits.
"Arizona has been a state that has chosen to house instead of treat, especially the drug crimes," said Rep. Bill Konopnicki, R-Safford, who has been leading a group of lawmakers studying sentencing trends. "This is not about being soft on crime."
Prosecutors challenge the notion that felons are sent to prison inappropriately. They point to a voter-approved initiative that prohibits imprisonment for first- and second-time drug offenders.
"We can't find any evidence anywhere that a first-time offender has been given these long prison terms," said Barnett Lotstein, special assistance to Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley. "These people have committed these crimes several times."
Prosecutors add that this study and similar research reviews only convictions, which often result from plea bargains that dismiss other, more serious charges.
Still, some lawmakers believe the state must re-examine the handling of lower-level felony cases that appear to be causing the destruction of families.
Konopnicki estimated that as many as 35,000 children have been displaced in the past five years because one or both parents are in prison. Many of those children wind up in the care of Child Protective Services, another overburdened state agency.
"It's a crime in itself," said Senate President Pro Tem Carolyn Allen, R-Scottsdale. "We can help the women in prison to have early release. We can help them with their drug and alcohol problems. We can teach them to have a different lifestyle. But more than anything, we have got to think about those children. Where are those children? Society is now paying to take care of those children. I don't think that's a very smart way for the Legislature to spend their funds."
The state also might be creating generations of criminals, Konopnicki said. Three-fourths of girls in the state's juvenile corrections system, and half the boys, have at least one parent in prison, he said.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums is urging the Legislature to give judges more discretion in sentencing women to probation and drug treatment instead of prison. Allen said she wants to introduce legislation next year to establish a government commission to further study sentencing trends and to propose reforms to the entire criminal code.