Arizona’s most populous counties, Maricopa County, Pima County, and Pinal County, send the greatest number of people to prison. However, when looking at these numbers on a per-capita basis — or how many people are admitted to prison for every 10,000 county residents — rural counties rise to the top. Graham County, a small county with fewer than 40,000 residents, has the state’s highest prison admissions rate, followed by Gila County, Greenlee County, Cochise County, and Yavapai County. This is true even when looking solely at admissions rates for non-violent offenses — or the number of people sent to prison for non-violent offenses for every 10,000 people in the county. In 2017, Graham sent 37 people convicted of non-violent crimes to prison for every 10,000 residents, compared to only 14 people in urban Pima.
Whether someone is sent to prison is not only a function of local decision-makers — it is also determined in part by what options are available in lieu of prison. Eight of the state’s 15 counties have deferred prosecution programs that allow adults charged with a felony to maintain a clean record if they participate in programming. Many counties have adult drug courts for people charged with drug or drug-related crimes. In other areas there are few alternatives beyond probation, which is available in every county.
However, the available data indicates that whether a given county has a high prison admissions rate is not closely connected to the number of prison alternatives. For example, of the five counties with the highest non-violent admissions rates, three (Cochise, Gila, and Graham) have both deferred prosecution programs and drug courts. This is likely due to the fact that many of these alternatives divert a relatively small share of convictions. For example, in Maricopa, where the largest number of convictions occur, 3,641 people were referred to the county’s two adult felony deferred prosecution programs in the last three years while almost 30,000 people were admitted to prison over that period.