Inmates freed under new early release law

By: - June 24, 2019 9:35 am

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More than one hundred inmates have already been released from Arizona state prisons due to a new law allowing people convicted of drug offenses to end their sentences early.

And more than 7,000 people who are currently incarcerated in Arizona could be eligible for early release under the law as well, though in some cases that may not happen for many years.

The Arizona Department of Corrections had released 101 inmates who were eligible for early release through the end of last week, according to spokesman Andrew Wilder. In a June 11 letter to a bipartisan group of state legislators, Department of Corrections Director Chuck Ryan said nearly one hundred more inmates may be eligible for early release if they complete the required programming.

The inmates are eligible for release under the terms of Senate Bill 1310. The legislation, which Gov. Doug Ducey signed on June 7, allows inmates who have been convicted solely of drug offenses to be eligible for release after serving 70 percent of their sentences, rather than the 85 percent required of other inmates under Arizona’s strict “truth in sentencing” law. Inmates who don’t complete their entire sentences behind bars serve out the remainder under community supervision. In order to be eligible for early release, inmates must complete a drug treatment program or other “self-improvement program.”

A review by the Department of Corrections review found 7,367 inmates who could be released early under SB1310, Ryan wrote the lawmakers. Of those, 4,918 must complete the required programming. He cautioned that it may be many years before some of those inmates are eligible for release.

“It is important to remember that potential projected release dates for these inmates span over decades and do not represent immediate releases,” Ryan wrote.

The inmates who either have or will soon be released due to SB1310 have served between 70 and 85 percent of their sentences, and have completed the required programming.

Some lawmakers are already planning for additional sentencing reforms for the next legislative session. On Thursday, House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, announced the creation of an ad hoc study committee on earned release credits, the system that allows eligible inmates to earn their release after serving 70 percent of their sentences.

Rep. Walter Blackman, a Snowflake Republican who quickly established himself as a leading voice for criminal justice reform during his first session earlier this year, will chair the study committee. In a press statement, Blackman said the committee will look at the effectiveness of the new program and how it can be improved.

“I expect this committee to lay the groundwork for genuine progress on this issue next year,” Blackman said.

According to a description on the legislature’s website, the purpose of the ad hoc committee, which expires at the end of the year, is to gather input and craft recommendations for reforms to the earned release credit system, “specifically whether and how the system could be reformed to allow additional credits to be earned by prisoners.”

During his first legislative session this year, Blackman sponsored House Bill 2270, a more far-reaching sentencing reform bill that would have lowered the 85-percent sentencing requirement for most offenders, though he planned changes that would have exempted dangerous and violent offenders. Rep. John Allen, R-Phoenix, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, blocked HB2270 from moving forward, as he did with several other criminal justice reform bills during the 2019 session.

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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.”