Criminal justice reform advocates split on GOP bills to reduce sentences

By: - February 5, 2019 9:14 am

Protesters hold signs during a rally calling for criminal justice reform outside the U.S. Capitol July 10, 2018, in Washington, DC. Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein | Getty Images

A bill that would reduce sentencing requirements for people convicted of drug offenses isn’t nearly as ambitious as another far-reaching sentencing reform proposal, but may have significantly better odds of passage this legislative session.

Under Sen. Eddie Farnsworth’s Senate Bill 1310, people convicted of drug possession would be required to serve only 70 percent of their sentences, as opposed to the 85 percent all inmates must serve now under Arizona’s strict “truth in sentencing” law. To be eligible for the reduced sentence, an inmate must have completed a drug treatment program during his or her incarceration, and must not have been previously convicted of a violent or aggravated felony.

According to the Arizona Department of Corrections, there are nearly 3,700 inmates who are behind bars solely for drug possession, out of a total prison population of about 38,000. SB1310 isn’t retroactive, so it wouldn’t apply to anyone who has already been sentenced for drug possession.

Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert

Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, has long chaired the Judiciary Committee and is known to criminal justice reform advocates as a tough-on-crime lawmaker who opposes their more far-reaching efforts. But Farnsworth, who last year ran a bill making it easier for people to have felony convictions set aside, said people wouldn’t be as surprised if they looked at the bills he’s sponsored in the past.

“The fact that I’m just unwilling to decriminalize every drug out there and open up the prisons and let everybody out doesn’t mean I’m not for reform,” Farnsworth said.

Farnsworth said he worked on SB1310 with Rep. John Allen, R-Phoenix, and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, another frequent foe of criminal justice reformers. With Montgomery and Farnsworth in support of the proposal, its prospects appear to be good.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear SB1310 on Thursday.

SB1310 is substantially more limited in scope than another sentencing reform proposal, House Bill 2270. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, would trim the 85-percent requirement to 65- or 75 percent for dangerous or violent offenses, and 50 percent for nonviolent offenders. Blackman’s bill would not apply to anyone convicted of sex crimes against minors.

Donna Hamm, of Middle Ground Prison Reform, said Farnsworth’s bill is a step in the right direction, even if its effects would be limited. And she said it’s likely to encounter less opposition than HB2270, which supporters hope to apply retroactively to people who have already been sentenced.

“We would like to see broader criminal justice reform and certainly support looking at all categories of offenders. But we think the Blackman bill goes way too far and asks for way too much. We honestly think that, because it’s so broad, it’s going to hurt the chances,” Hamm said.

Montgomery said the bill is targeted and data-driven, as opposed to Blackman’s bill, which he said was an “ideologically driven shot in the dark.” SB1310 will focus on a discrete group of inmates with an identifiable problem. Montgomery said the sentence-reduction reform could be expanded to other groups of offenders in the future, if data from the current proposal supports such a change.

He said the bill is not meant to undermine other, more expansive sentencing reform proposals.

Blackman’s bill has become a rallying cry for criminal justice reform advocates such as the American Friends Service Committee. Caroline Isaacs, the group’s Arizona program director, said the AFSC is officially neutral on SB1310, and said it’s better than nothing. And she said she hopes the bill is indicative of a growing consensus that the 85-percent requirement is too harsh.

But Farnsworth’s bill is far too limited, Isaacs said. And she worried that the Department of Corrections doesn’t actually provide enough of the drug treatment programs that SB1310 would require of inmates who seek early release.

“This bill doesn’t get us nearly as far as we need to go,” Isaacs said.

walt blackman
Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake

HB2270 is likely to undergo some changes, as the sponsor himself has concluded that it goes too far. Blackman said he plans to amend the bill to leave the 85-percent requirement in place for all violent and dangerous offenders, and focus exclusively on people convicted of nonviolent crimes, who would have to serve a minimum of 65 percent of their sentences.

Blackman said he’s wary of opening the door for violent offenders to get reduced sentences. He said a lot of people wouldn’t be able to stomach the more substantial sentencing reductions in his original bill.

“I think that taking off a bigger chunk than we can chew is going to be too much,” he said.

Blackman said he plans to meet with Farnsworth next week to discuss their legislation. He said both of their proposals are good bills.

“We may meet somewhere in the middle,” Blackman said.

Even if Blackman revises his bill, Isaacs said it’s still better than SB1310. She acknowledged that sentencing and criminal justice reform are long-term projects, and was optimistic that Blackman’s bill will open the door to improvements in future years.

“It is what it is. Legislation is a blunt instrument to try to fix an incredibly complex problem,” she said.


Note: This story was updated to say that Blackman plans to amend his bill, rather than introduce new legislation as he originally stated. 

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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.”