Our democracy rests upon a system of checks and balances. The whole point is to prevent concentrations of power in one or a few persons that thwart the will of the people. Yet that is exactly what we are witnessing with respect to criminal justice reform here in Arizona.
Throughout last summer and into the fall, a bipartisan group of legislators and a diverse group of stakeholders – representing a range of political views, from Americans for Prosperity to the ACLU – met regularly to hammer out drafts of criminal justice reform bills.
Our goal? Despite our many differences, we are committed to bring down Arizona’s fourth-highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate and abysmal 39-percent recidivism rate.
The result was exactly what proponents of more bipartisan policy solutions to Arizona’s most pressing problems have called for: A package of common-sense criminal justice reform bills with broad stakeholder buy-in.
When Republican legislators stepped forward to sponsor the bills, hopes ran high that Arizona would join Texas, Utah and other states in revising criminal justice policies to replace an ineffective “tough-on-crime” approach with effective policies to rehabilitate offenders and reduce the size of the Arizona’s corrections budget.
Among the bipartisan priorities are:
HB 2270 (Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake), which addresses Arizona’s harsh requirement that all prisoners serve 85 percent of their sentence by enabling prisoners who complete prison education and treatment programs to reduce the length of their sentence. The federal government stopped providing prison grants to states based on truth in sentencing in 2001, and Arizona is the last state in the country with the unusually harsh 85-percent requirement.
HB 2362 (Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria), which provides a judge with the discretion to seal a defendant’s criminal record upon the defendant’s successful petition and completion of his or her sentence or probation. Violent offenses and dangerous crimes against children are not eligible for expungement.
HB 2245 (Rep. Tony Rivero, R-Peoria), which provides for judicial discretion to reduce a mandatory minimum sentence.
But what the participants in these bipartisan efforts did not anticipate was a small handful powerful legislative committee chairs – with support from an equally small handful of influential county prosecutors – who are now blocking the bills from going forward. With only one more regularly scheduled committee hearing remaining this legislative session, only one of the package of reform bills has been placed on a House Judiciary Committee agenda by its chairman, Rep. John Allen, R-Phoenix.
This means that, unless Allen agrees to hear his Republican colleagues’ bills on that last agenda, the will of the voters to take up criminal justice reform will be thwarted for yet another year.
This isn’t the way representative government in a democracy is supposed to work. The actions of the few in power are not supposed to block the bipartisan will of the many on an issue with broad public support. Four out of five registered voters in Arizona believe it is important to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated and only one percent want to spend additional tax dollars on jails and prisons.
A picture rarely gets any clearer than that. But at the Arizona Legislature, it looks like it’s the same old, same old. So far, the people haven’t been heard on this issue. If you are sick and tired of that, let your lawmakers know today.