Justice reform advocates seek to reduce sentencing requirements

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. 

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.”

6 COMMENTS

  1. I truly believe that this Bill could help restore the truth that inmates would have the opportunity to believe they can change and be productive community citizens and that goog intentions and be civil is free,cheap, and painless! This will work with an attentive mindset and trust in all involved. From community’s to the highest powers therefore let’s do this?

  2. Guess I dont understand,, the kid I know that is in Jail for 37 years, used to sell drugs, rob from homes and then in 2007, beat a college student on the head with a baseball bat, to rob him. College kid has a seizure and is 80% out of 100, the rest of his life. Never will be the same, due to some wanna be thug that never amounted to anything in his life before that, will get a lesser sentence? Seems pretty sad to me,, Thug should never get out, even if his mother who was a drunk all her life loves him… makes no damn sense..

    • Of course it doesn’t make sense to you- you do not have the capacity, in mind or heart, for understanding or forgiveness. Fortunately, for you, people have continued to forgive you throughout your whole life for the terrible things you have done. Let me remind you that, had you gone to jail or prison when you beat that ‘drunk’ woman you are referencing, you’d be in the same little cell as these inmates- begging for the same second chance. These people are paying their debt and that debt should not be their entire life. Most people ARE capable of change. (Although you are clearly the exception) Excessive sentencing is a drain on the economy – period. Let’s get these people rehabilitated and back into the community where they can continue to right their wrongs by contributing to society in a meaningful way. Praying for you – I can’t imagine you are a happy person. You never were.

  3. it seems to me that the prosecutors in Arizona may be in bed with the private prisons. It is a fact that longer prison sentences do not deter crime. It only serves to institutionalized prisoners so that when they are released they have a hard time coping with the world as it has changed since they were free. Why wait so long on re-entry programming? Give them the programs of drug abuse, anger management, and job training while they are incarcerated. You can’t put a person in a small cell with nothing to do except be influenced by the hardened criminals. Most want to do better but are not given the tools they need to survive while there or when they are released. There are lots of drugs in the prison system and especially the private systems. I know this for a fact. And if you are an addict or emotionally unstable you are a prime candidate for the people selling drugs. Addicts need treatment not more time with no hope! This isn’t rocket science, it is common sense. Treat them like people and not animals. They are our families and long sentences destroy more than them, it undermines our sense of humanity, and creates more problems that it fixes. Prosecutors need to be more transparent. The whole system sucks and kills the human spirit.
    Even after their time is served, the label of felon follows them and becomes a life sentence.

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