Sentencing-reduction bill moves forward as advocates push for broader reforms

By: - February 14, 2019 2:17 pm

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Criminal justice reform advocates hailed a bill to reduce sentencing requirements drug possession as a step in the right direction while urging the sponsor to expand it to include more people.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday unanimously passed Senate Bill 1310, which reduces Arizona’s strict sentencing requirements for prison inmates whose primary charge is drug possession or paraphernalia.

Arizona’s “truth in sentencing” law requires people to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, at which point they’re eligible to earn early release and serve out the remainder of their sentences under community supervision. The bill would allow eligible inmates to earn early release after serving 70 percent of their sentences if they successfully complete a drug treatment program or some other “major self-improvement program” while incarcerated.

Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who chairs the committee, sponsored the bill in partnership with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, which has traditionally opposed more far-reaching criminal justice reform proposals. Rebecca Baker, a lobbyist for the county attorney’s office, told the committee that the goal of the bill is to reduce recidivism. And by studying the recidivism rates of those inmates who earn early release, Baker said future policymakers can use the data to determine whether to expand the policy to other types of offenders.

Democratic committee members and criminal justice reform advocates were more lukewarm on the proposal, which they said didn’t go far enough.

Many had pinned their hopes for sentencing reform on House Bill 2270. That bill would reduce sentencing requirements for nonviolent crimes to 50 percent and for most other offenses to 65 percent, though the sponsor, Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, planned to amend it to remove violent offenders and change the requirement for others to 65 percent.

However, HB 2270 has not yet been heard in committee, and the deadline for the hearing is next week.

Lobbyist Barry Aarons, who represents the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group that advocates for justice reform, said the organization is neutral on SB 1310.

“We think the discussion on this should be continued to determine whether this provision might be a little bit too small to hield the type of results we think should be yielded,” he said.

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization that’s also supporting HB 2270, said it was neutral on Farnsworth’s bill. Boaz Witbeck, the group’s deputy state director, said Americans for Prosperity also believes SB 1310 isn’t far-reaching enough, and was concerned that the bill isn’t retroactive to cover people who are already in prison for drug possession.

Others noted that the bill wouldn’t apply to people convicted of non-drug offenses, even if their crimes resulted from drug addiction. Carmen Hreniuc testified that her son is in prison on a charge of trafficking stolen property, which stemmed from a substance-abuse problem. And Catherine Castaneda, a former inmate, testified that the bill should be expanded to cover lesser crimes that are drug-related.

“Even though it wasn’t (a drug charge), the problem is still there. The underlying problem is what has not been addressed,” Castaneda told the committee.

Democratic lawmakers expressed similar concerns, but voted for SB 1310 nonetheless, saying it was at least a step in the right direction.

“There’s no way I can vote no on the bill, because it sets a foundation for much needed change for both sides of the aisle. I do wish the sponsor would consider expanding the scope, as many people testified,” said Sen. Andrea Dalessandro, D-Green Valley.

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, questioned whether the sample size of inmates who earned early release would even be enough to study.

According to the Arizona Department of Corrections, about 3,800 people are currently incarcerated for drug possession charges. But Quezada noted that the bill wouldn’t apply to people with previous convictions for violent offenses or aggravated felonies on their records, or to people with other charges in addition to drug possession.

“If we’re going to have a real evaluation of this, I think we have to expand it at least a little bit more,” Quezada said. “You’re just disqualifying a lot of people.”

Department of Corrections spokesman Andrew Wilder told the Mirror that about 1,700 of the 3,800 people currently in prison on drug possession charges would be eligible for release if SB 1310 were to be applied retroactively, though he said he expects that number would jump to more than 2,000 under an amendment the committee approved on Thursday that adds drug paraphernalia charges to the bill.

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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.”