Criminal justice reform advocates taking aim at AZ’s “truth-in-sentencing” law

The state prison in Winslow. Former inmates say the state's prison system needs treatment programs for drug addicts. Photo courtesy Facebook

A Quaker organization focused on social justice issues that works toward criminal justice reform plans to make a push during the upcoming legislative session to reduce Arizona’s strict sentencing laws.

In 1993, a time when tough-on-crime legislation was popular across the country due to decades of soaring crime rates, Arizona passed a “truth in sentencing” law requiring all inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. The law also eliminated parole for anyone sentenced after Jan. 1, 1994. Inmates are eligible for “earned release credits” that can shorten their sentences by up to 15 percent, with the final portion served under community supervision.

The Just Sentencing Bill of 2019, as the American Friends Service Committee is calling it, would allow inmates to earn time off of their sentences. People convicted of violent crimes or other certain serious offenses would have to serve at least 68 percent of their sentences behind bars, while others else would be required to serve a minimum of 50 percent of their sentences. Both categories of inmates would serve out an additional 15 percent of their sentences on community supervision.

Proponents say there are a number of reasons to eliminate Arizona’s truth in sentencing requirements. For starters, there’s no evidence that such requirements do anything to reduce crime or recidivism, and they necessarily drive up Arizona’s incarceration rate. Then there’s the argument that it’s unfair due to inconsistent sentencing laws among states. Finally, there’s the fact that Arizona spends more than $1 billion per year on its prison system, which currently houses more than 42,000 inmates, according to data from the Arizona Department of Corrections.

In 1993, the year the Legislature approved the Arizona’s truth in sentencing law, 438 people per 100,000 were incarcerated. As of 2016, the rate was 611 per 100,000, a slight drop from the apex of 628 per 100,000 in 2014. By way of comparison, Arizona’s incarceration rate in 1993 was 22 percent greater than the national average, and 32 percent greater in 2016.

Arizona currently has the fifth-highest incarceration rate in the nation.

Caroline Isaacs
Caroline Isaacs

Caroline Isaacs, program director for American Friends Service Committee, said the 85-percent requirement discourages inmates from taking part in education and rehabilitation programs while behind bars. Without an incentive, inmates are less likely to take advantage of the few rehabilitative programs the state offers, she said, which makes their reentry into society more difficult, increasing the likelihood they’ll re-offend and return to prison.

“The argument that these people need to stay in prison longer, as if there’s some public safety reason for that, is false. Now, if you just want to retaliate against them because you’re mad, people can try to advocate for that. But in terms of achieving our public safety goal, it does not do any good,” Isaacs said.

Isaacs described Arizona’s requirement as unusually harsh, and as something of an anomaly at a time when other states are scaling back their truth-in-sentencing requirements. Arizona is one of just three states that went as high as 85 percent with its truth-in-sentencing requirement, but the other two, Mississippi and Texas, have since reduced that threshold.

“All of these changes are, again, (aimed at) bringing Arizona in line with most other states. This is not some radical, crazy change,” she said. “The sky is not falling in states like Mississippi and Oklahoma where they have made these changes.”

The federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 incentivized states to pass truth-in-sentencing laws by making federal grants for prisons contingent upon them. Over the next five years, Arizona received about $58 million in grants for new medium- and maximum-security prison beds. But the federal government scrapped the grant program in 2001, ending a major financial incentive for truth-in-sentencing laws.

Now, advocates of criminal justice reform tout the financial benefits of reducing truth-in-sentencing requirements.

Scaling back truth-in-sentencing requirements could also help reduce the $1 billion that Arizona spends each year on its corrections system. The Department of Correction has previously cited truth-in-sentencing reform as area where the state could save some money. In 2009, during the depths of Arizona’s historic budget crisis, then-Gov. Jan Brewer asked state agencies to figure out how they could cut down on spending. Among the possibilities listed by the Department of Corrections was reducing truth-in-sentencing requirements for some inmates.

According to the department’s 2009 report on the subject, by reducing sentencing requirements for minimum- and medium-security inmates to require only 25 to 75 percent of sentences to be served, depending on the crime, the state could have saved more than $100 million. By freeing more than 9,000 inmates under the theoretical sentencing guidelines, the state would eliminate nearly 5,000 prison bed units. The department estimated that 30 percent of those released inmates would end up behind bars again.

The department said the proposal would have some downsides, as well. It warned that “potentially dangerous” inmates would be released into the community, and that the transfer of nearly 500 inmates from closed facilities would worsen overcrowding issues at other prisons. The change would also have required the state to eliminate 854 jobs.

If the corrections budget is reduced through sentencing reform, the savings could go toward things like rehabilitation programs and prison health care, Isaacs said.

The American Friends Service Committee says it has bipartisan support for its proposed legislation, with support from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

Joe Watson, a researcher with the American Friends Service Committee, said the group plans to make a big push for the Just Sentencing Bill when lawmakers convene in January. That effort will bring former convicts, families of inmates and others who are affected by Arizona’s sentencing laws to the Capitol to meet with lawmakers.

The incoming speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, Rep. Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, said he isn’t familiar with AFSC’s plan, but supports sentencing reform and said he wants to allow judges to have more control over sentencing decisions. Bowers said he would prefer to get rid of truth-in-sentencing altogether, though he doesn’t believe that will happen in 2019.

“I just want more judges to be in control, because they can know the individual person. They have to face them eye-to-eye. I want them to be in charge, not the prosecutor,” Bowers said.

However, Bowers said he isn’t a fan of reducing sentencing requirements for violent offenders.

Sen. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, the incoming president of the Arizona Senate, said she’s wary of letting people out of prison if they pose a threat to society. But she’s will to consider reducing sentencing requirements for some people.

“I would have to look across the board to find out who we’re talking about, what circumstances are we dealing with, and if it makes sense, and are there some protections and safeguards to make sure that we are protected, that people are not going to be harmed,” Fann said.

Though it has bipartisan support, sentencing reform is likely to face serious opposition in the Legislature, especially among Republican lawmakers. And the opposition of two influential Republican county attorneys, Maricopa County’s Bill Montgomery and Yavapai County’s Sheila Polk, poses a problem for reform advocates.

Polk began working as a prosecutor in 1982, before truth-in-sentencing. She said there was cynicism among members of the public, law enforcement officers and crime victims when they would learn that a 10-year sentence really only meant five years, or sometimes less, behind bars. Once Arizona passed truth-in-sentencing, she said, she enjoyed being able to explain to skeptics that convicts would actually have to serve out most of their sentences behind bars.

“I love truth-in-sentencing, because the judge imposes a sentence, and that’s the sentence that they’re going to serve,” Polk said.

Montgomery wasn’t quite as unyielding, but was highly skeptical. Montgomery said truth-in-sentencing works and prevents crime by keeping criminals behind bars for longer.

The Maricopa County attorney said the Department of Corrections should implement recidivism reduction programs for inmates from the moment they’re incarcerated. And he acknowledged that there’s room to incentivize rehabilitation programs in the corrections system. But he’s far from convinced.

“My reaction is not a knee-jerk ‘no.’ It’s, ‘Alright, you want to have a conversation? Let’s have a conversation.’ But there’s much more thought that needs to go into this,” Montgomery said. “We need to provide the programming first and figure out, how much time do we need?”

Jeremy Duda
Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”


  1. Truth is sentencing was bull to begin with !! Blackmailing is also wrong when sentencing. When the procecution says you can’t even get your day in court after you’ve won your rule 32 is wrong!! Non violent crimes spend more time in prison then they should .. prison reform should have been redone years ago. You let these people rot in these places and it’s disgusting!!!!

  2. Prosecutors lie, If you have done one crime they will say you are a repeat offender again LIES! It cost way more then a billion a year due to the family s that lose some one on a non-violent crime because they have to get state assists like food stamps, money and health care (most of that goes to illegals) so there is a shortage there as well. Then the families become homeless, kids then start to do crime to help out with the family because some one got looked up for something that should of been a misdemeanor. Its all just BS! prosecutors act like they are God (they will have to answer for this one day). Some one attempting to solicit a credit card for less then $100.00 first time gets 8 years or 15 flat but let some one do armed robbery with a gun, they get 5 years and are out in 2, crimes of killing, assault and battery they get 2 to 3 years. Those are the people that will return back to prison (most). It is just sickening!! May God help the ones that really should not be there for years!!!!

  3. What is the latest on this?
    Why is AZ the only state still with the “truth in sentencing” law? Every other state got rid of the law.

    • Mississippi still have the truth in sentence law as well. They recently came out with a bill to not sentence under the truth in sentence anymore after 2014. But mississippi still have two decade of peoples still locked up and serving 85% time that’s where the over crowd come in at.

  4. Yes my boyfriend of 9yrs got sent to prison for shop lifting under $100 and because he had a trafficing stolen property in 92 they used a historical prior on him and he had a misdemeanor changed to a felony and got a plee for 3 yrs so he said no way and the prosecutor gave him 4 1/2 cuz he didn’t take the first plee offer this is so ridiculously crazy I don’t understand stand this shit on usei g priors on people he did him time back in 92 why do they get to punish people twice the way they do so now my man it gone for 4 1/2 yrs for less then a $100 crime Yavapai county they have there own set of rules such BS. We need this law to pass please we need people home already dam

  5. The prison system is severely broken. The inmates spend most of there time escaping their realities with homemade hooch and drugs as there are no rehabilitation programs that contribute to an inmate’s education, intelligence or skill. Any inmate who has spent their time educating themselves or becoming a mentor or a reliable employee, should be given the opportunity to be released if they have served their time plus. If inmates have learning disabilities like dyslexia or lack of formal education, it should be part of the rehabilitation system and incentives for inmates in order to cope inside and prepare for life outside. The reduction of craft programs has made inmates idle and eliminated the ability to stimulate their minds and create saleable products in order to provide for their own personal supply of everyday needs like toothpaste, deodorant, etc. (which are priced above retail wholesale). Holding onto an inmate who has proven to be diligent and focused on self improvement and preparedness for release is nothing but a money venture for the state and does nothing the prepare a broken system. Rehabilitation programs are sorely inefficient and recidivism is a given if inmates are not prepared to cope inside or out.

  6. The prison system is corrupt, using people like you, and I, to make more money. Money, money, money, that’s what it’s all about. If it weren’t, then two people facing the same charges would get the same sentence. Not at all. Doesn’t matter what part of the country,or world, you are from. We all know the accused who has money for a “real” lawyer, almost always ends up getting probation. The one who has no money or no access to money always goes to prison. Once you get that number the State gets a huge amount for you. The one who thought they got lucky, might not have earnumber number but Probation fees, U.A’s, Mandatory Drug Court, Breathalyzers, it just goes on and on. If you make 3 years of Probation it’s almost $400.00 just for monthly U.A.’ing. Either way, it’s all about money for Yavapai. If you’re well off you loose your money on your lawyer, but he kept you out of prison. Only to be swamped down and pay for all the classes you have instead of prison. If you’re not so lucky, they give you a public pretender and you get sentenced to prison. It’s a win win for them. Now, my State is breaking down into Counties. My county does what it feels like, and no one ever questions it. The latest,and most personal one is ,this new Trumpt up bull—-. Medical marijuana….. The state says to be legal pay all this money get your MMJC and you’ll be in compliance as far as the law is concerned. WRONG….. Now they are taking law abiding citizens and charging them for possession of a Narcotic for something they purchased legally. My county has decided it feels unclear on the law, that was written in the 1960’s by the way, about what’s covered and what’s not. So they are charging someone with a class 4 Felony. Once again it all comes down to money. It’s a vicious circle. They passed the law so people could get legal only to charge you like you were cardless. They let shops make it,sell it, and package it,once it’s in your possession you can, and will be charged. I’m out of time, I’ll probably go to prison, get out and this will all be a memory in time. Once again the Laws that are put in place to supposedly to protect us are just the opposite. They are there to en-trap the lower class person. The prison system is a joke. There’s no help for any substance abuse you might suffer from, if your mind isn’t just right, there’s no help. They want to use the inmates as a Guinnie Pig. I’ve been hearing for about 10 years now how they are going to lessen sentencing guidelines. Why would they???? When we’ve all made them very, very, wealthy.

  7. I have priors from 2002 and this year because of a family members trump up bullshit charge of 1 count of using a credit card! The state of Arizona is trying to give me 8.5 years! I feel like this is some kind of nightmare, 17 years without so much as a traffic ticket, but because i can’t afford a lawyer I am looking at 8.5 years. I would rather die than go back to prison. Espeicially for a crime I am innocent of, this is what Arizona puts people through all because I have priors. And those priors are because I was hiding out from a rapist/kidnapper and i used a credit card and rented an apartment in someone else’s name. I was hanging with the wrong people and I got caught up. I did 4.3 of a 4.5 year sentence back in 2003, plus 5 years on IPS. Intence probation…I simply cannot give anymore of my life to the state of Arizona.

  8. Mohave county is the worst of worst. The corruption goes from judge down to PD. Wives of judges, PD officers can do drugs sell drugs get caught and no charges. As well as able to get there jobs back on force even when they stole from evidence. But Joe Blow gets max allowed in prison. Then we have DA’s that not only give false evidence at trial they never enter into evidence just give back said item to viticms in open court. As well as has a Grand Jury that are just there to sign indictment with no arguments of validity of the evidence being given. (IE to be indicted based off of someone else’s actual event of crime and prosecuted from what they did and public defendpretenders do nothing.)R.A. of the mohave county district attorney’s office is the most corrupt one of all. The person who did it was ID by neighbor down to license plate and PD and victims find there stuff in his car and R.A drops due to lack of evidence. How is that lack?? That’s right cuz he is there CI there home invasion and they get part of his take… and I can prove all this but do think anyone will vote up agaisnt mohave county, nope all chickens… so my man gets 13years for a.crime is was not part of so DA’s office CI can walk…. more than reform needs to be done a complete overhaul of the judicial and PD departments with investigations….

  9. Private prisons pay big money to keep represenitives in who are not willing to listen to prison reform. This is not justice. This is greedy.

  10. Why is Pinal county charging crimes behind prison walls? Family member supposed to be released on 3/5/2019 after 7 years in Arizona Department of Corrections and guess what they are changing him with assault from a fight that happened in October 2018. He has nobody in the state of Arizona his mom who was out there just died and now 30 days from his release then are charging him and asking him to sign for another 7 years. He will never have anyone to be able to visit him. Arizona does not care about rehabilitating people private prisons must be booming charge someone in super max that is severely mentally ill. Glad AZ tax payers are okay with DA using taxpayer money to house inmates for lengthy sentences and not interested in the much cheaper option that does reduce crime like rehabilitating inmates. Any help besides the public defender telling him to sign another 7 years anyone who would be interested in real advocacy and explaining why AZ department of corrections is so corrupt let me know. AZ showing a strong correlation and causation last in education and first in incarceration and guess what they are charging people who are already in prison not much for fighting crime but great job waisting AZ tax payer money!! This person would have left AZ to be with his son and grand daughter in another state guess his grand daughter will never meet him!! Excellent job Arizona sure conviction charging a prison inmate before release date when the inmate had already been in prison for 7 years. For anyone with a loved in AZ department of corrections if they defend themselves they will be charged with assault so do not expect them to be released from prison. AZ department of corrections you are corrupt. Here is a thought invest in education and get rid of for profit private prisons!!

  11. Some of the things that are being talked about are happening to me. I was arrested for theft of means of transportation. I have priors. For it so the prosecutor is threat in that if I dont sing the plea for 6.5 year. Any plea form hear on out will be “scientifically wore” yes I made bad discussions in my past. A lot really. In this circumstance I asked to use a truck when I was told My 8 pregnant girlfriend at the time was put out ont the street. The truck had no indications that it was stolen. My lawyer told me that passed off the evidence the charge should have been a lower charge. So why are they charing me with a class 3 felony when it should be a class 5. Now I am not dumb. I know the pass play a part in thes types of things. But damnit I have been out for almost 2years. Got a job and learned new trade. Payed my taxes last year and damn it feel in live ask her to give me a boy and she did! Now I’m fighting for for my family back. I’m out on pretrial service on a ankle monitor that they put on to right that is now cutting into my leg gave me a wound and when I told My PO I was homeless he just said well thank for keeping the monitor charge and to let him know when I find a place. And good. Luck to me and to keep him updated. I am not too worried about that part its not his fault and really is one less thing I have to worry about. But really if a bank gets robed 6 times and on the 7th I walk in and walk out it dosent mean I was the one who robed them all the other time too. My point is Just because I done it in the past dosent mean I’m guilty of it this time.and I am in no pasition to get a payed lawyer. It hurts to think that my son might grow up for the first 6 or more years of his life not knowing me. Which I am going to trial. I have to fight. Knowing that if I lose I could get 7-13year. But I will trust in the evidence… And hope the jury will see the case for what it is.

  12. I am in the process of going to trial in Arizona , I’m looking at up 60 years in prison for 6 grams of personal being charged as trafficking harsher sentence because over 12 years a go I got a DUI. I’m not in a place to afford 12000 to start legal counseling the appointed attorney not doing anything just says that’s arizona law I have only received one speeding ticket in last 12 years there should be more help for addicts rather than prison


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