Independence Day marred in Arizona by incarceration crisis

This July 4, Americans will gather to celebrate and honor the foundational tenets of a nation in which all people are created equal, with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

But this year in Arizona, the promise of the Declaration of Independence once again comes with an asterisk, following the close of another legislative session without any meaningful criminal justice reform.  

As it currently stands, Arizona’s legal system threatens the very founding principles of our nation. Our state is in the midst of an incarceration crisis that does immense harm to individuals and families alike. 

With an imprisonment rate that’s the fifth-highest in the nation, we separate more fathers from their children than most other states proportionately. Nearly one in ten Arizona children has a parent who is either currently or formerly incarcerated

But this reality isn’t evenly distributed; communities of color are far more heavily impacted. In 2017, African Americans were represented most disproportionately, comprising five percent of the state population but 13 percent of prison admissions. Maricopa County is by far the worst perpetrator of this trend, where African Americans make up 17 percent of prison admissions but only six percent of the county population.

Not only does Arizona send disproportionate numbers of African Americans to prison, it also sends them there for longer periods of time. African Americans receive the longest average prison sentences, and we believe this trend has to do with how our community is treated when it comes to charges of simple drug possession. The data show that sentences for drug possession are more than 50 percent longer for African Americans than for Whites. 

The primary driver of these differences is prosecutors’ use of the “repetitive offender” enhancement – the very abuse that Senate Bill 1334, one of this year’s legislative reform proposals, was meant to correct.               

But SB1334, like nearly all of the criminal justice reform bills that were introduced this session, died at the hands of Sen. Eddie Farnsworth and Rep. John Allen, the chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary committees, who refused to let most proposals get a hearing. Key county attorneys lobbied heavily publicly and behind the scenes to prevent even the most modest of reforms

Most appalling was the action of Gov. Doug Ducey, who vetoed a policy that twice passed the House unanimously, had near unanimous support in the Senate and major public support. His one-sentence explanation vaguely referenced a potential impact on victims. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery sent a letter to the governor requesting the veto on behalf of Arizona’s county attorneys using the same language. 

In thwarting reform, none of these political leaders included in their political calculus the legacy of imprisonment the current system is leaving to our children and grandchildren, or the generational curse that ‘normalizing’ prison imparts to our communities. While our pastors and churches have tried to help by providing services in the jails for years, we know that is not enough. It is time for us to speak out against this unjust system and demand reform.  

We fully support accountability for wrongful behavior, but we want a process that restores and transforms lives, maintains the integrity of families and communities and provides for actual correction. Given that 7 in 10 admissions to prison are for nonviolent crimes, with more people being admitted for drug crimes than all violent offenses combined, we think Arizona’s current system has moved far beyond accountability to an excessive, counterproductive, and oppressive system of punishment.  

Therefore, on this Independence Day, African American Christian Clergy Coalition churches across the Phoenix metro area once again commit to working on the following: 

  1. expansion of earned release credit opportunities 
  2. expungement of records after a person has completed their sentence
  3. examination of the factors that are leading to disproportionality for African American men and a commitment to finding solutions
  4. bringing greater visibility and partnership opportunities to the state and county from our communities for diversion and reduction in recidivism programs
  5. implicit bias training for all law enforcement officials, including police officers, prosecutors, public defenders, and judges
  6. host law enforcement and forums with residents of our communities to make sure that our people understand all of their rights and responsibilities within the criminal justice system
  7. continued work with diverse stakeholder groups to develop meaningful criminal justice reform laws and policies.

We want so much better for our communities, our children, our fathers and mothers, and our future. We want a justice system that actually serves the interests of justice, that creates opportunity for growth and redemption, and recognizes the destructive nature of incarceration. 

Let justice in Arizona roll down like a river and righteous like a mighty stream. Next Independence Day, let’s ensure that every Arizonan has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as put forth in the Declaration of Independence nearly 250 years ago.

Dr. Warren H. Stewart, Sr., is chair and senior pastor of the First Institutional Baptist Church of Phoenix, Arizona. He has served there since July 1, 1977. The vision of the African American Christian Clergy Coalition is to promote unity among African American Clergy, in order that our individual lives would be enriched, our diverse churches and ministries would be strengthened.


  1. Those “first time” simple drug offenders going to prison have been previously convicted for drug offenses TWICE before. Under Arizona law, probation and treatment are mandatory for the first and second drug offense. So these “first time” drug offenders are really “three time losers.” Puts a different light on the subject.

    • So Mr. Kavanagh, does your “different light on the subject” mean you find no agreement with Dr. Stewart’s perspective? Do you support any part of the African American Christian Clergy Coalition’s 7-point agenda?

      Or as an elected official do you simply enjoy throwing cold water on any effort to address clear racial disparity in prosecution & sentencing? Do you reject any call to address Arizona’s over-reliance on incarceration?

  2. I completely agree with your article , from my experience since my wife was sentenced to perryville for 9 years (after receiving a check from her former employer for $483 when she went to cash it a warning of fraudulent check led to her arrest) it seems , and I have been reviewing hundreds and hundreds of other cases that besides a bias against African Americans, women are receiving far harsher sentences than men who were convicted of the same charges , and I’m not just referring to my wife’s case. There is also a considerably larger African American and native Indian prison population, I have written journalists hoping that this would be looked into, so far to no avail, hopefully that change

    Thank you

  3. Of course there are many ways in which our criminal justice system can be improved, especially as it impacts minority and economically disadvantaged communities. First, however, is the impact of parenting skills that teach children to respect and obey all laws — even the ones disagreed with — which greatly contributes to avoiding involvement or contact with criminal justice officials in the first place. Second, we need vastly expanded investment in the safety net programs and services, including for mentally ill citizens, which can not only divert people from criminal activity or charges, but can provide life-long support in the community to direct lives in productive endeavors and outlets. By the time one enters the prison system (there is a first time for everyone no matter how many previous contacts with the criminal justice system have occurred in the past that did not resolve with a period of prison incarceration), we need to have a classification system that separates those who want to change themselves from those who really aren’t willing to invest in that particular type of hard work. Incentives, such as additional earned release credit days, could be offered but for reasons of public safety and common sense, they should not be automatic and should not be available to repetitive offenders, some sex offenders, violent offenders , and some dangerous offenders. These are legal terms of art. These have nothing to do with race, ethnicity or economics. The critical factor for avoiding recidivism is authentic acceptance of one’s own decisions and behaviors which directly led to the criminal behavior in the first place. Without genuine and deeply held acceptance of personal responsibility, all the programs, reduced prison time, community support and interventions don’t make a whit of difference.


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