Arizona is in the midst of a crisis when it comes to its justice system. The number of people who are sitting in the state’s prisons has skyrocketed — most of them nonviolent offenders. Many of them are there on minor drug crimes.
Arizona has the fifth largest prison population in the country — and it imprisons more people for drug crimes than all types of violent crimes combined. Part of the problem, say advocates for reform, is that prosecutors apply the laws in a way that ends up sending nonviolent offenders to jail as “repeat offenders” when they’re hit with multiple charges all at once — even if they’ve never been in trouble before.
Another part of the problem is that prosecutors also construe the laws that are designed to keep nonviolent drug offenders out of jail in ways that are contrary to what the laws intended. That’s the particular issue that is now going in front of the Arizona Supreme Court.
At issue is what makes a defendant convicted of drug possession eligible for probation versus prison. The case in question dates from a man’s conviction in 2016 for drug possession and the possession of drug paraphernalia — at the same time. Because he had a prior conviction for solicitation to sell a narcotic, the defendant was deemed ineligible for probation — despite the 1996 Drug, Medicalization, Prevention and Control Act.
The Act clearly states, “any person who is convicted of the personal possession or use of a controlled substance or drug paraphernalia is eligible for probation.” However, excluded from that law is anyone with three strikes for drug possession or possession of drug paraphernalia. The Arizona Supreme Court now has to determine if the defendant should really be charged with all three strikes — two of which were handed to him at one time and one of which wasn’t actually a crime of possession but an unsuccessful attempt to broker a minor drug deal.
From a defense perspective, there are multiple issues at play in the problems that Arizona’s justice system is facing — but the issue of who the state should be putting in jail for a minor drug crime is paramount. If you have been charged with a drug crime, take the issue seriously and get an experienced criminal defender.