About two dozen members of the public got their first chance to speak their mind at a legislative committee exploring reforms to sentencing and other aspects of Arizona’s criminal justice system, discussing the need for substance abuse treatment behind bars, the difficulty people face in finding housing and jobs after they get out of prison, and the boundaries of the reform legislation that advocates are planning for 2020.
At Monday’s hearing of the House Ad Hoc Committee on Earned Release Credits for Prisoners, perhaps no issue came up more often than drugs and the impact they have on the criminal justice and correctional systems.
Tuesday Brauer, who spent a collective eight and a half years behind bars through two sentences from crimes she committed to feed a methamphetamine addiction, estimated that 90 percent of the women she served time with at the Department of Corrections’ Perryville prison had some kind of substance abuse problem.
“I think that had I learned how to deal with my addiction, I probably wouldn’t have been so deep into the things that I was doing, stealing cars,” Brauer said.
While some speakers testified that they or loved ones ended up behind bars as a result of drug charges, others, such as Brauer, faced felony charges for other crimes they committed to feed drug habits.
John Fabricius, for example, testified that he spent 15 years in prison for a variety of nonviolent crimes such as aggravated identity theft and credit card fraud. Those crimes were all fueled by drug addiction, he said.
“The entirety of my 15 years in prison, the drug programs that were available were not substantive,” said Fabricius, who was released from prison last year.
Former inmate Dawn Curtis told the committee, “There’s no treatment within prison,” and that she was able to get sober only through an inmate-created treatment program.
Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, spent much of the two-and-a-half-hour hearing asking speakers about substance abuse problems, inmates’ access to illegal drugs while they’re incarcerated, and the need for treatment programs for substance abuse problems, as well as for the pre-existing trauma that he said fuels most addiction problems.
“Would you agree that substance abuse, whether it be drugs, alcohol, things of that matter, that if we were to tackle that, if we focused on that … we would make a huge dent in this issue?” Roberts asked one speaker.
And Roberts asked several speakers the same question: Can people with addiction issues be forced into treatment, or must treatment wait until they’re ready to willingly get help? Most said there’s no point in forcing treatment on people who don’t want it or don’t think they need it, but that it should be an option that’s always available.
A lack of substance abuse treatment programs wasn’t the only area where help for inmates was found lacking.
Re-entry needs to start sooner
David Sheppard, of Arizona Advocates for Ex-Offenders, said his organization helps people find employers who will hire former inmates and provide housing to people with felony records. If people get out of prison and can’t find jobs and homes, Sheppard said, they’ll fall back into their old habits. Sheppard said a gubernatorial council on re-entry that he serves on is also looking at ways to assist released inmates with mentoring and family reunification.
Sheppard’s organization is working on a program that would begin helping people with re-entry issues before they even begin their prison sentences, while they’re still incarcerated in the Maricopa County jail system. The process, he said, needs to begin much sooner than it does now.
“Re-entry should start when you go into prison, not 90 days before you go out,” Sheppard said.
Joe Watson of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization committed to criminal justice reform, explained that, because he is a military veteran, he was eligible for services that weren’t available to other inmates while he prepared for his release, such as help with drafting resumes, finding jobs, enrolling in health care and even nutritional assistance.
But other inmates need those kinds of services as well, Watson said, and for most there isn’t much help to be found.
Several speakers focused on the troubles people have finding housing after they’re released from prison.
Curtis said she still can’t rent an apartment due to the “horrible barriers” that property managers put in the way of people who have been convicted of felonies. Sheppard noted that, 45 years after his release from prison, his felony record still shows up on background checks.
“No matter what re-entry programs you go through …. when you get out, if the community, if the private sector is not educated on crime and on people it’s not going to help,” Sheppard said.
Roberts said he’s planning legislation for the upcoming session aimed at helping people find housing after their release from prison.
Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, who chairs the committee, said lawmakers must tackle a number of the issues that speakers raised during the hearing, including drug problems. He referred back to Sheppard’s comments about beginning re-entry programs as soon as a new inmate walks in the door. And he said Arizona needs more diversion programs and needs to give judges more discretion in sentencing decisions.
“This is going to be a heavy lift,” Blackman said. “This is going to be a long fight.”
What is politically viable?
While the myriad speakers covered a lot of other related issues, the committee’s primary goal is to craft legislation to reform Arizona’s strict prison sentencing requirements. Because of Arizona’s 1993 “truth in sentencing” law, inmates must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, and can get “earned release credits” that will allow them to serve the final 15 percent on community supervision.
Several speakers debated a question that hounded the criminal justice reform movement during the 2019 legislative session — how much to compromise for the sake of political viability?
Last session, Blackman sponsored House Bill 2270, an ambitious sentencing reform proposal that would have reduced the truth-in-sentencing requirement to 65 percent for dangerous offenses and 50 percent for other crimes. Blackman had planned to scale back the bill, including to exempt people convicted of violent or dangerous offenses, but the legislation never received a hearing in committee.
Donna Hamm, director of the prison reform organization Middle Ground, urged the committee to focus on “incremental reform,” and not to include violent crimes or sex offenses in its eventual sentencing reform plan. She questioned whether there’s enough support among lawmakers or from Gov. Doug Ducey to pass a far-reaching proposal into law.
“We don’t think those are palatable at this time, politically speaking,” Hamm said. “There are 100 percent good intentions, but we also believe in the reality of politics. And we’d like to see something passed rather than losing everything by too broad of a stroke.”
Roberts expressed similar sentiments in his closing remarks, urging advocacy groups not to get wrapped up in an “activist mentality.”
“We all want to do something to improve the system,” Roberts said. “You can derail improvements by going too far.”
Watson, whose organization helped lead the charge for criminal justice reform last legislative session, took the opposite approach. Compromise may be necessary at some point, but he warned lawmakers not to try to appease reform opponents whom they’ll never win over anyway.
“Why start off from an already weakened position?” he asked.
The committee’s next hearing will be on Oct. 7.