GOP leader of sentencing reform panel wants audit of Corrections Dept, in-depth exam of racial disparities in system




    Arizona State Prison Complex - Lewis. Image from Google Earth

    The Republican chairman of a legislative sentencing reform committee recommended that the state create a non-legislative task force to delve into criminal justice reform issues, order an independent audit of the Arizona Department of Corrections and dedicate a future meeting to examining racial and ethnic disparities in incarceration.

    Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, issued his three recommendations as the House Ad Hoc Committee on Earned Release Credits for Prisoners concluded its second meeting on Monday. The committee is tasked with crafting proposed legislation to reform Arizona’s criminal sentencing requirements, which are among the strictest in the country.

    A 1993 “truth in sentencing” law requires that all inmates in Arizona serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Inmates can serve the final 15 percent on community supervision if they qualify for earned release credits. Blackman has been an advocate of criminal justice reform in general, and sentencing reform in particular, and sponsored unsuccessful legislation last session to reduce Arizona’s sentencing requirements.

    Blackman mentioned that he has several legislative proposals that he wants the rest of the committee to weigh in on. But he didn’t air those plans at Monday’s meeting, issuing his set of recommendations instead.

    First, he said he wants the committee to begin discussions about creating an independent task force to look at “overarching areas of concern” in the criminal justice system and examine the information that the committee receives. He said he’ll bring his proposal to House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, to get his thoughts. 

    Second, Blackman said an outside, third-party audit of the Department of Corrections will help policymakers understand the system that houses the people who are at the center of the debate and help facilitate their re-entry into society. 

    And finally, Blackman said he wants to dedicate a future committee meeting to racial and ethnic demographics in sentencing, an issue that arose when a committee member began questioning the Pinal County attorney on racial disparities in criminal charging.

    “I know that is a question for many on this committee and in the community. It’s important that we look at who is being housed,” Blackman said.

    Earned release credits, Blackman said, are just part of the overall program.

    “In order for us to accomplish comprehensive criminal justice reform in the state of Arizona, we need to look at all areas of the criminal justice system, from the front door when a person has that first encounter with the police officer on the street to diversionary programs to when they get in front of the judge or prosecutor, and when they get into the prison system and when they leave the system,” Blackman said.

    Though the committee has yet to issue and proposals on earned release credits, a major criminal justice reform advocacy group gave it an idea of how much it might be able to reduce the prison population in Arizona, which has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the U.S. 

    Derek Chin, a research associate at FWD.us, crunched the numbers on several theoretical sentencing reform proposals. 

    He said if the legislature reduced the sentencing requirement to 50 percent for people who commit non-dangerous crimes, while excluding anyone convicted of a Class 4, 5 or 6 felony, the state’s prison population would drop by 2,802 in 10 years. If it reduces the requirement to 50 percent for all non-dangerous crimes, while reducing the sentencing requirement to 67 percent for dangerous offenders, that number reaches 8,717. And if lawmakers were to impose a 50-percent requirement for all offenders while making the change retroactive, the prison population in Arizona would drop by 12,990, Chin said.

    As of July, 42,263 inmates were serving time in Arizona prisons, according to data from the Department of Corrections

    Blackman’s recommendations largely mirrored issues raised during the two-hour hearing.

    Tony Espree, who spent nearly 30 years behind bars in Michigan for a first-degree murder conviction, told the committee about the challenges that people face after getting out of prison and trying to re-integrate into society.

    Espree came to Arizona after his release with the help of his cousin, a professor at Arizona State University. Through his cousin, Espree was able to get housing and a job at the university.

    But not everyone has someone who can help the way his cousin did, Espree said. And without assistance with things like housing, employment, transportation and even food, some people will struggle to get back on their feet.

    “I’m here as an example to be able to show that juveniles, if given a second chance, can come out and do the right thing,” Espree told the committee. 

    Espree said he participated in a lot of programs offered by the Michigan Department of Corrections. The availability of such programming in Arizona came up in discussions during the last legislative session about sentencing reform proposals, including one that reduced the truth-in-sentencing requirement to 70 percent for people convicted of only drug offenses.

    The committee also spent part of Monday’s meeting discussing diversion programs that prosecutors in Maricopa and Pinal counties can use to keep people from going to prison in the first place. 

    The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has seven diversion programs, the most-used of which is for drug offenses. In the fiscal year 2018, 3,073 people went into the county’s drug diversion program with a 70 percent success rate, according to Rebecca Baker, the agency’s lobbyist. Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer said his agency has just one diversion program, where it sends about 19 percent of its misdemeanor cases and 3.4 percent of felonies.

    Volkmer said his agency’s diversion program focuses on people “who need a kick in the pants” instead of a felony charge. Those people could end up going down the wrong path if such options aren’t available, he said.

    “My belief is an increase in diversion ultimately leads to a decrease in the amount of money that’s being spent at the Department of Corrections,” Volkmer said. “The state could reallocate those funds to the front end, address it at the beginning, give people the skills that they need on the front end to hopefully never get them there, and save money.”

    But Volkmer warned that funding is paramount. Without nearly $400,000 in state funding, the Pinal County Attorney’s Office wouldn’t have been able to get its diversion program started. The program is now at maximum capacity and needs more funding, especially if the county wants to provide diversion to higher-risk offenders, he said. 

    And in many smaller counties, that option simply doesn’t exist for people in the criminal justice system. 

    Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Phoenix, raised the issue of inmate demographics with Volkmer after seeing statistics from the Maricopa and Pinal County attorney’s offices. He said blacks and Hispanics appeared to make up a disproportionate percentage of the people charged in Pinal County, and wanted to know whether the same trend held true in referrals to the county’s diversion program. 

    Volkmer said he didn’t know, but that the county keeps those statistics and that he’ll find out.

    Blackman said he didn’t want the committee to go down the “rabbit hole” of race and ethnicity in Arizona’s prisons, but said he had a subcommittee looking into the issue. He later included that discussion in his package of recommendations at the end of the meeting.

    “We would like to have that conversation,” Bolding said.

    “We will have that, absolutely,” Blackman responded. 

    Some speakers and committee members noted that there’s more to sentencing than state law alone. Other factors come into play, including charging decisions by prosecutors, an issue that Toma flirted with after hearing statistics from the Maricopa and Pinal county attorney’s offices.

    The committee’s next meeting will be Sept. 23, when public testimony will be heard for the first time. Blackman said he wants to hear from anyone who has been affected by the criminal justice system, from former inmates to their families to crime victims. 

    But he added one caveat for anyone who wants to speak at the next meeting.

    “I encourage you to come with solutions. We cannot solve the problem if we are just complaining about the system,” Blackman said.

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