For years, Arizona’s top prosecutors have leaned on a study of the state’s prison population to draw conclusions about how sentencing laws work.
For just as long, advocates of criminal justice reform in Arizona have criticized the study as flawed and misleading in a way that benefits the arguments prosecutors make to policymakers at the Capitol: that sentencing laws are working as they should. Put another way: the majority of people behind bars are the bad guys – violent and repeat offenders – who deserve to be there.
The latest update to the Prisoners in Arizona report, produced by the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council, or APAAC, is scheduled to be finished this fall, and it promises to be more controversial than ever thanks to the man hired to update it, John Lott.
Lott is best known for his work in the field of gun laws, where his most talked about research concludes that areas that allow concealed carry of firearms are associated with lower crime rates.
Just as critics of the Prisoners in Arizona report have spent years rebutting the study’s findings, Lott’s critics are no less vocal. His research has been picked apart, and in many corners of the academic community, found to be lacking. His integrity has been questioned amid accusations that he manipulates data to draw conclusions that fit the narrative of his views on firearms, accusations that Lott has repeatedly denied.
His hiring by APAAC has left those already critical of the Prisoners in Arizona report even more wary that the council is engaging not in a fact-finding mission, but in a political exercise designed to protect their broad discretion as prosecutors.
Officials with APAAC either defended Lott’s research or argued that his political leanings and firearm-focused studies are irrelevant to the task at hand of analyzing data provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections. But for some, like Caroline Isaacs, whose work for the American Friends Service Committee in Arizona focuses on criminal justice issues, the politics are hard to ignore.
“This is a really unfortunate choice that honestly I think undermines the credibility of APAAC,” Isaacs said. “And if I were a member of APAAC, I would have serious reservations about putting my name behind any research produced by this guy.”
Lott came to prominence for his work as a pro-gun academic, and is frequently called upon to make media appearances or write editorials expounding the virtues of guns as a crime deterrent. His résumé boasts work as a contributor, then columnist for Fox News.com, and most recently, the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, an organization run out of his Pennsylvania home covering a wide range of research topics, most related to firearms.
Lott had his ups and downs through the years, most notably after a wave of research contradicting his work around “More Guns Less Crime,” his seminal book first published in 1998. “More Guns Less Crime” stemmed from a study Lott co-wrote as a research fellow at the University of Chicago. Published in 1997, that study drew a link between laws permitting concealed carry and lower crime rates.
His conclusions were much like the adage often heard at the Arizona Capitol that guns in the hands of well-to-do citizens are a quality means to deter evil-doers.
As gun advocates latched on to Lott’s research, the larger academic community began to scrutinize it, and what they found was, in the words of one criminologist, “garbage.” Studies have since contradicted Lott’s work, criticizing everything from the data he chose to analyze and the statistical models he used to crunch the numbers. . . .