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

By: - November 20, 2018 3:26 pm

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?”

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. 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.”