Vol. 19 No. 12 (December, 2009) pp.892-895


SUNBELT JUSTICE: ARIZONA AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN PUNISHMENT, by Mona Lynch.  Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 2010. 280pp. Cloth $70.00.  ISBN: 9780804762847.   Paper $24.95.  ISBN: 9780804762854.


Reviewed by Doris Marie Provine, Arizona State University. Email:  marie.provine [at] asu.edu.


Many people recognize that the Sunbelt’s approach to urban development is unsustainable.  Urban sprawl, profligate use of water, and devotion to a car culture are obviously not viable over the long term in fragile desert environments.  Less well known is the region’s unsustainable approach to sentencing and punishment.  The Southwest stands out for its devotion to large no-frills prisons and its penchant for harsh penalties, including mandatory minimum sentencing, regardless of the cost to the general fund.  Mona Lynch’s new book helps us understand what happened to make the Southwest, and particularly Arizona, a national leader in warehousing large numbers of prisoners rather than attempting rehabilitation or exploring less expensive alternatives.  She offers a historical narrative of this best-case/worst-case state that is informed by contemporary theorizing about the global movement toward harsher punishment.  In focusing on a single place, she challenges some of the assumptions underlying previous descriptions of the movement toward mass incarceration.


The micro-focus on a single state’s policy evolution allows Lynch to address the role powerful individuals have played in the process. Dr. Lynch enjoyed excellent access to state corrections archives and to public figures, and this helps bring her story to life.   SUNBELT JUSTICE is full of colorful characters who do not hesitate to express their devotion to discipline and to express their resentment of outsiders who meddle in their institutions.  Lynch describes a state legislature that has always sought to save as much money as possible on prison administration and prison construction.  It is an Arizona tradition, for example, for prisoners to build their own prisons. 


Yet there has always been a counter-argument in favor of expertise in corrections and for modernizing state government.  The state did finally establish a Department of Corrections in 1968, placing the new agency under the leadership of a professionally trained, nationally respected prisons administrator.  The state’s interest in rehabilitation of its criminals, however, has been episodic.  Rehabilitative ideals never really displaced the earlier idea that strict discipline and unpleasant prison conditions most effectively deter crime.  Arizona leaders implicitly understood the principle of “less eligibility,” which intends prison life to be less attractive than life outside prison.  For a long time, however, devotion to cost savings softened the impact of this approach to imprisonment.  As the state grew, the legislature and prison administrators kept prison populations [*893] down with early release and probation.  The prison population hovered at around 2500 until the 1970s. 


This cost-conscious approach to prison populations was abandoned in 1978 when the legislature rewrote its sentencing laws to impose harsh mandatory minimum penalties and tough determinate sentencing boundaries for common crimes.  It made these changes with full knowledge that the impact would be a surge in imprisonment.  New prison construction became a necessity as courts intervened to protect prisoners from extreme over-crowding and other abuses.  There was no turning back as the warehousing approach became institutionalized.  In 1983, for example, the system was overwhelmed with prisoners, but the legislature made its criminal code even tougher that year. 


Arizona now has 40,000 adults in ten prison complexes, six of which are privately owned.  Some prisoners have had to be housed out of state at considerable expense.  Since 1986, Arizona has been among the top ten incarcerating states.  In 2008 Arizona had the 6th highest rate of incarceration among states, and was 4th highest in state spending on its prisons, using 10 – 11 percent of its general fund for this purpose. 


Pro-punishment forces have had to contend with lawsuits from prisoners and their supporters over the years, but they have fought back with gusto.  The U.S. Supreme Court lent a hand in 1996 with its decision in LEWIS v. CASEY, which set a new, tougher “actual injury” standard for prisoner appeals.  Arizona’s Senator Kyl obligingly sponsored the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), a law that has severely narrowed the rights of inmates to seek help from federal courts.  The state successfully removed law libraries from all of the state’s prisons in the 1990s.  The Commissioner of Prisons, Terry Stewart declared that he would replace these libraries with “plain English and stubby little pencils” to handwrite complaints in non-legal terms, and that is what he did (p.197).  The state has also opted for massive complexes built in isolated areas.  These rural prison warehouses make it difficult to offer educational or psychological programs for prisoners, to facilitate family visits, and to offer programs that assist in reintegrating prisoners into civil society.  They also take prisons out of the public eye and reduce scrutiny of their operations.


SUNBELT JUSTICE suggests the need to revise or amend frequently heard arguments for why imprisonment has boomed in recent decades.  The broad-brush theory that posits abandonment of rehabilitative ideals in favor of mass incarceration (see e.g. Garland 2001), needs to be amended to take account of significant regional variation.  Some places never fully embraced the rehabilitative ideal.  SUNBELT JUSTICE effectively shows that Arizona and the other new states of the American Southwest were always more dubious about rehabilitative approaches to imprisonment than the Northeast and Midwest.  This point would have been even clearer if Lynch had made this a comparative study, rather than focusing on a single state.


This book also demonstrates the significance of local actors and local traditions in the emergence of mass incarceration in Arizona, implicitly [*894] challenging arguments for change based on global economic insecurity and associated dislocations.  Arizona began to increase dramatically its prison populations in the 1980s, for reasons that echoed long-standing state traditions that valorize harsh discipline and toughness.  Nostalgia for the old Arizona, rather than growing economic insecurity, may help to explain the changes in the state, which was rapidly growing at the time.  Finally, this book problematizes racial-threat hypotheses to explain growth in imprisonment.  Blacks and Latinos have always been significantly over-represented in Arizona’s prisons, from the earliest days before statehood.  While it is true that there has been a trend toward more Latino imprisonment, this did not occur until the state’s imprisonment boom was well underway.


Despite Lynch’s in-depth analysis of the state’s move toward mass imprisonment, the reasons for that change remain obscure.  It is clear that the shift in policy was not the product of populist pressure.  Concerns about this issue are episodic, usually manufactured by various moral entrepreneurs, including sometimes the governor.   The important players have been prison commissioners attempting to achieve their varying visions of appropriate prison policy, political leaders who sometimes accept, and sometimes reject these views, and the federal courts, which have occasionally intervened in the policy process, at times siding with prisoners citing abuses, and at times vindicating the state’s no-frills approach. 


The current economic crisis highlights the trade-offs that Arizona is making: Can harsh, costly   punishment policies be maintained in a period when child welfare programs and education are being cut, when parks are closing and bus routes are abandoned?  Interestingly, changing punishment policy to cut costs has not yet become a topic of public discussion, even as the state legislature borrows on the commercial market to keep the state afloat.  Will cost considerations eventually force the state’s leadership to abandon its imprisonment policies?  Lynch believes that in Arizona’s relatively unbureaucratic structure there is hope for positive change.  Some changes would be relatively easy to effectuate.  Many people are in the county jail, for example, because they are unable to pay high fines and surcharges that the legislature has imposed for offenses like drunk driving.  The fact that probation violations are a big source of re-incarceration offers the possibility of rewarding programs that reduce probation violations.  Counties could be made responsible for over-reliance on prisons, which are a state expense. Mandatory minimums could be reduced, allowing judges more discretion in individual cases. 


The historical approach this book takes, however, tends to temper optimism about the potential for a change of heart about the value of no-frill imprisonment.   The full-length story reveals consistent opposition to “outside interference” (except when Arizona is a clear beneficiary, e.g. in costly federal works that brought water to the desert).  Prisoners have always been devalued and often de-humanized, and courts have been inconsistent in supporting their concerns.  Punishment has always been popular in this state, and prisoners have not had any powerful political allies.  As the state considers privatizing its [*895] remaining prisons, the constituencies for more of the same will grow stronger.  The best hope for reform is that the state’s dire financial condition, coupled with determined political leadership, will create conditions for a return to the approach that once prevailed: controls on imprisonment dictated by consciousness of the (fiscal) costs of warehousing human beings. 



Garland, David. 2001.  THE CULTURE OF CONTROL: CRIME AND SOCIAL ORDER IN CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



LEWIS v. CASEY 518 U.S. 343 (1996).


© Copyright 2009 by the author, Doris Marie Provine.