Prisons across the country have management software to track their inmates – including tracking when they should be released. But in Arizona, the state Department of Corrections would have failed to keep its software up to date. The result, according to whistleblowers who talked to KJZZ, NPR affiliate in Phoenix, is that hundreds of incarcerated people were kept behind bars for a long time after their sentence ended.
The software problem stems from a change in Arizona law that paved the way for people convicted of non-violent drug offenses to be released ahead of time. The change in law has created a credit system that can significantly reduce a sentence if a prisoner meets certain objectives. This approved in 2019 and went into effect last year, but apparently the Arizona Department of Corrections hasn’t updated its software to incorporate that. Not only that, but according to the KJZZ report, the state agency was aware that it had been changing its prisoners for almost two years, but did nothing about it.
Under Arizona law, the Department of Corrections must allow prisoners to cut up to three days of their sentence every seven days spent behind bars, assuming they participate in programs such as GED classes or substance abuse treatment. The system can allow a person to serve up to 70% of their sentence using these credits.
“We knew from day one that this was not going to work.”
But Arizona prisons were not responsible for that system. “We knew from day one that this was not going to work,” a person from the Arizona Department of Corrections told KJZZ. “When they passed the bill, we looked at it and said, ‘What the fuck’.” Prison officials have apparently tried to raise the issue several times with the administration, including filing a bug report that notes that the credit system “is not in [the software] at all “and that the system” can calculate a earned credit for every six days served “, which is significantly less than the amended law allows prisoners to earn. Not only does the system not count credits accurately, but it also fails to identify incarcerated people who are eligible for sentence reduction programs in the first place, which means that many are missing out on opportunities to leave early.
The result is hundreds of prisoners trapped behind bars, despite doing everything required of them to be released in advance under state law. “We were unable to find people to include them in the programs and, after completing the programs, we are still unable to get them out of the house,” a Corrections Department whistleblower told KJZZ. “These people are literally in jail.” Until the software is fixed, the Corrections Department is reportedly trying to calculate credits manually to determine whether prisoners are eligible to receive their early release.
Software failure is a major problem under any circumstances, but especially in Arizona. The state has one of the highest prison rates across the country, driven largely by a change in policy that dates back to 2000, when the state began putting more non-violent drug offenders behind bars. According data published by FWD.us, 70% of people behind bars in Arizona are there for non-violent crimes.
There is no evidence that putting nonviolent drug offenders behind bars does everything to reduce recidivism; in fact, putting people behind bars for these crimes is more likely to result in them committing another offense as soon as they are released. This disproportionately affects people of color, who are incarcerated at a significantly higher rate than white criminals.
Arizona lawmakers at least have the right idea to get people out of the prison pipeline as soon as possible, but the Department of Corrections appears to be failing the state and its citizens. Instead of addressing the software problem, the Corrections Department simply blocked their employees’ access to the KJZZ report in your failures. It seems that there are some technical problems that the agency can resolve quickly, but it is a pity that the same urgency does not exist to help incarcerated people who have deserved their release.