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Arizona misses deadline on curbing prison rapes, federal funds at risk

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WASHINGTON – Arizona failed to meet a May 15 deadline for national standards aimed at reducing sexual assaults in its prisons, and will lose some federal funding for Department of Justice programs in the state as a result.

Arizona was one of seven states and one territory that missed the compliance deadline for the Prison Rape Elimination Act that set “national standards for the detection, prevention, reduction and punishment of prison rape.” Passed in 2003, states had until this year to comply.

Justice Department officials said this week that those states that did not meet the deadline will lose 5 percent of departmental grants. State and federal officials were not able to provide an estimate this week of how much the withholding might cost Arizona.

Gov. Jan Brewer’s office did not return calls seeking comment on the Justice Department action. But in a May 1 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, the governor was defiant.

“In Arizona, we have taken action to alleviate prison sexual abuse even without the passage of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act,” Brewer’s letter said.

She added that Arizona’s issue “is not with PREA itself, but with the regulations recently adopted by the DOJ.” The Department of Justice, she claimed had created “unreasonable and costly unfunded mandates well beyond the original scope of the requirements established in PREA.”

Those arguments did not sit well with Donna Leone Hamm, executive director of Middle Ground Prison Reform in Tempe.

“There are very few Arizona legislators that authentically care about inmate safety,” said Hamm. “They’re sending a clear message to the families (of inmates) about the priorities of the Arizona Department of Corrections.”

In addition to Arizona, states that did not meet the PREA deadline were Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nebraska, Texas and Utah, as well as the Northern Mariana Islands.

Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mary Lou Leary said in a briefing Wednesday that those states could still comply later, but that the penalty for this year would take  effect.

“For the eight states and territories that did not submit a certification or assurance, the opportunity for coming into compliance has not passed,” Leary said, according to a transcript of the briefing. “They will incur the 5 percent reduction in funding this year, but we will continue to offer our assistance in the hope that they will work toward compliance in the near future.”

In regard to the 5 percent grants cut, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Corrections said “the effect is virtually nil,” because the agency receives little to no federal money as is.

A 1992 study by the Federal Bureau of Prisons estimated that between 9 and 20 percent of inmates had been sexually assaulted. After PREA, that number had dropped to an estimated 4 percent of inmates in federal lockup and 3.2 percent of jail inmates nationwide by 2011-2012, according to the most recent report by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Like Arizona, some other states that did not comply with the PREA standards charged that the requirements would cost states dearly. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said it would cost the state millions of dollars to meet the standards and believed the costs would have little ultimate benefit.

But Hamm was not swayed. When asked about why Arizona hasn’t complied yet, Hamm responded, “there is no excuse.”