Caroline Isaacs, program director for the American Friends Service Committee in Arizona, speaks during the group’s Reframing Justice Day at the Capitol on Jan. 22, 2019. Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror
A Republican lawmaker and a Quaker social justice organization are taking aim at the strict sentencing laws that Arizona passed during the height of the tough-on-crime era in the early 1990s.
The “truth in sentencing law” approved by the Arizona Legislature in 1993 required that inmates serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, and eliminated parole. Inmates can get an early release through “earned release credits” that allow them serve the final 15 percent of their sentences on community supervision.
House Bill 2270, sponsored by Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, would reduce sentencing requirements so that inmates convicted of dangerous offenses would have to serve a minimum of 65 percent of their sentences, while non-violent offenders would only be required to serve half of their sentences. People who are convicted of sex crimes against minors would still have to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.
In order to qualify for early release, inmates would have to participate in Arizona Department of Corrections programs on substance abuse, anger management, re-entry and other topics, said Joe Watson of the American Friends Service Committee, which has been working on sentencing reform legislation for months and worked with Blackman to craft the bill.
“It’s not just a gift. You have to earn it,” Watson said.
Blackman said sentencing reform is simply the right thing to do.
“I try to put myself in a situation if I had a family member or if I knew someone that was in that situation, or if I were in that situation, would I want someone outside fighting for me? I don’t think this is a partisan issue,” he said.
Blackman also said reducing Arizona’s prison population would save Arizona money that could be diverted to education funding. The Department of Corrections estimated in 2009 that the state could save up to $100 million by reducing sentencing requirements for low- and medium-security inmates by 25-75 percent.
Watson said AFSC’s conservative estimate is that HB2270 would affect at least 17,000 inmates, which would cover nearly half of Arizona’s prison population. According to the Department of Corrections, there are more than 36,000 people behind bars in Arizona’s state prisons. According to the justice reform advocacy group Fwd.us, Arizona has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the country.
AFSC and other criminal justice reform advocates, including Piper Kerman, whose memoir of her incarceration inspired the television series “Orange is the New Black,” gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday for Reframing Justice Day to launch their broader push for reform in the 2019 legislative session. Nate McKowen, a writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 10 years in prison after killing a man in a car wreck, spoke about the lack of opportunity for early release that he said gives inmates little motivation to take responsibility for their actions and provides no hope for the future.
If inmates want to participate in rehabilitation programs, they generally have to wait until they have just 12-18 months of their sentences remaining, McKowen said. HB2270 could change that.
“In order for a person to overcome all of that, they have to believe that what they do matters. And that is why I support fair and proportionate sentencing laws,” McKowen said. “With the promise of an early release, it reminds people that what they do matters. It gives them hope and it gives them something to hope for.”
Blackman, AFSC and other sentencing reform advocates may have a difficult time convincing opponents like Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk.
Polk was a prosecutor prior to the passage of Arizona’s truth in sentencing laws, and argues that the state’s previous sentencing scheme eroded trust in the justice system when crime victims learned that criminals would only have to serve one half to one third of their sentences. Polk argued against loosening Arizona’s sentencing laws in an op-ed in the Arizona Republic last month, and she’s taken a dim view of HB2270.
“I would really hate to see Arizona go back to those days when the sentence meted out by the judge really didn’t mean what the judge was saying. It just breeds cynicism among our citizenry,” Polk said. “To me, it doesn’t serve any good purpose.”
If the Legislature wants to cut down on Arizona’s prison population, Polk said it should focus on anti-recidivism measures such as re-entry programs for inmates who are leaving prison, and take more steps to address drug abuse.
Nonetheless, Blackman said he’s confident that HB2270 will have enough support to pass and that his colleagues have been receptive.
“The majority of them say it’s a good bill,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that McKowen said he was under the influence of drugs at the time of his accident.
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