Disappointment, but still some hope for criminal justice reform advocates

By: - March 11, 2019 4:47 pm

An ambitious criminal justice reform agenda with substantial support on both sides of the partisan aisle will have to wait another year, at least, after the Legislature passed a key deadline without hearing a handful of far-reaching bills in their respective committees.

Rep. John Allen, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, decided against hearing legislation to reduce sentencing requirements, slash marijuana penalties and make it easier to expunge criminal records, among other proposals. The deadline for hearing bills in committee in their chambers of origin was on Feb. 22.

For advocates who viewed 2019 as a potential turning point in the debate over criminal justice reform, the session has been a disappointment. They had Republican legislators sponsoring major pieces of reform legislation and assembled a broad-based coalition of supporters that included organizations on both the left and the right in support of that legislation. And still, those bills died quietly without a committee hearing.

“I think ‘disappointed’ is not quite strong enough a term,” said Caroline Isaacs, the program director for the Arizona chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that lobbies for justice reform.

Isaacs said the criminal justice reform movement has spent years taking incremental steps. This year, it had hoped to make bigger gains. And there seemed to be reason for optimism.

“We’ve been doing this for the long term. We did incremental. I’ve been at this for 20 years in the state. And if you’ve noticed, I’m getting a little impatient. We have bent over backwards to follow all the rules that they say we’re supposed to follow. We had broad bipartisan support. We had the co-chair of the committee introduce the bill. We have hundreds of constituents call,” she said.

The centerpiece of the reform movement’s agenda for 2019 was House Bill 2270. The bill, sponsored by a freshman Republican, Rep. Walter Blackman, would have reduced the requirement in Arizona’s “truth in sentencing” law mandating that inmates serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

Allen didn’t schedule the bill for a hearing in the Judiciary Committee.

The only sentencing reform proposal still working its way through the legislative process is Senate Bill 1310, sponsored by Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, which reduces the sentencing requirement for drug possession to 70 percent. The bill is not retroactive, and would likely affect only a small number of people. Currently, fewer than 4,000 people are behind bars in Arizona for drug possession only.

Supporters of Blackman’s sentencing reform bill view SB1310 as a weak substitute, at best. Isaacs said HB2270 was “small potatoes. But when it comes to SB1310, she said, “I don’t know that (it) constitutes an entire potato.”

While some reform advocates have trained their fire on Allen for refusing to hear key proposals, others note that his counterpart on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Farnsworth, has long been hostile to such sweeping reforms. There were few, if any, expectations that Farnsworth would have heard the bills in his committee, even if Allen gave them hearings and they won approval in the House of Representatives.

And Gov. Doug Ducey has said that before he decides whether to sign or veto any criminal justice reform legislation, he’ll ask Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, another longtime foe of reform, to weigh in.

Allen, R-Phoenix, said he’s taking a cautious approach as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He wouldn’t rule out hearing some of the major criminal justice bills in future years, but said he’s not willing to take what he viewed as major steps without properly vetting the proposals. He also noted that he’s new to the Judiciary Committee, and said he wants to get a better handle on the issues he’s dealing with.

Furthermore, Allen was skeptical about some of the proposals that the justice reform movement put forward this session. If Arizona’s sentencing guidelines are unjust, Allen said policymakers should take a comprehensive look at them and fix any problems. But he said there should be some truth behind the number of years in a prison sentence.

As for the expungement bill sponsored by Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, Allen said it was a “dramatic step” that had a lot of opposition. He said there’s a difficult line to draw between helping people with felony records assimilate back into society and people’s right to know who they’re hiring.

“The safety of the public is at jeopardy. And, so, you want to make sure you’re making decisions that don’t ruin the fact that we have some of the lowest crime rates in the last 50 years. So, we’re going to make good, sound decisions,” Allen said.

The first blow to the 2019 justice reform agenda occurred before the legislative session even began. House Speaker Rusty Bowers created a House Recidivism and Sentencing Reform Committee, and assigned Rep. David Stringer, a vocal supporter of justice reform, to chair it. But after racist comments from the Prescott Republican came to light, Bowers dissolved the committee and decided to send reform bills to the Judiciary Committee instead.

Toma said the elimination of Stringer’s committee had a major effect on reform bills that originated in the House. Whether it would have made any difference in the Senate is a different matter.

“The chairman of (Judiciary) in the Senate has very strong opinions. Maybe it would’ve changed things, but at this point, really the only thing I can say for certain is that it would’ve changed things in the House quite a bit,” Toma said.

Not every reform advocate shared Isaacs’ grim view of the 2019 session. Lobbyist Marilyn Rodriguez, who represents Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice Reform, said there are still some bright spots. She pointed to several pieces of legislation that are still in play, even if they’re not swinging for the fences in the way that the sentencing reform and expungement bills were.

Rodriguez pointed to several bills that she said will be “truly impactful” if they pass. Toma’s House Bill 2361 would impose new restrictions on judges’ abilities to sentence a defendant as a repeat offender. House Bill 2424, sponsored by Chandler Republican Rep. Jeff Weninger, would reduce some Class 6 felonies to Class 1 misdemeanors. And Democratic Rep. Cesar Chavez’s House Bill 2311 would make it easier for people to clear their records of mistaken arrests.

Allen, who earlier in the session announced he was abandoning a sentencing reform measure that he’d sponsored because it “wasn’t ready for prime time,” has two other justice reform bills. One would make it easier for people with felony convictions to restore their rights after their release, while another would eliminate some prohibitions on the state issuing occupational licenses to people with criminal records.

“At the end of the day, I’m not disappointed (by) how much we were able to get done. I remind myself that there’s no such thing as low-hanging fruit in Arizona. These few bills we were able to get out of the House are a tremendous effort,” Rodriguez said.

Farnsworth said he hasn’t made any decisions yet on the House criminal justice bills.

In the Senate, justice reform advocates got some good news on March 7 when the chamber approved Democratic Sen. Martin Quezada’s “ban the box” bill to prohibit private sector employers from inquiring about job applicants’ criminal histories in the early stages of the hiring process after four Republicans crossed the aisle to join their Democratic colleagues. In the Senate, the bill was assigned to the Commerce Committee rather than Farnsworth’s Judiciary Committee.

It’s unclear which committee House Speaker Rusty Bowers will assign Senate Bill 1437 to in the House of Representatives. Quezada said he hopes it will go to the House Commerce Committee, which is chaired by Weninger, rather than to Allen’s Judiciary Committee.

Two other bills that reform advocates view as too tepid are also still alive this session. Along with Farnsworth’s sentencing reform bill for drug possession offenses, which Rodriguez called “imposter, phony earned release credit legislation,” the House passed Bowers’ legislation that would slightly expand the number of people who are eligible to have their names removed from Arizona’s sex offender registry. Both bills have the support of Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, an influential critic of criminal justice reform measures whom legislative Democrats have criticized as having an effective veto over legislation.  

Quezada shared Rodriguez’s view that there’s still a lot for reform advocates to be happy about this year. Even Farnsworth’s bill is something, he said.

“This is a long-term game. And we are making steps every single year,” Quezada said. “I have seen us take baby steps in the right direction on criminal justice reform. They’re not the huge steps that we would like. But as long as we keep making progress, I consider it a victory. I think it’s a victory even to see Republican members introduce a lot of these bills.”

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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.”