Lawmakers told addiction, re-entry barriers fuel problems in justice system




The state prison in Winslow. Former inmates say the state's prison system needs treatment programs for drug addicts. Photo courtesy Facebook

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.

3 COMMENTS

  1. This committee is only beginning to scratch the surface in terms of identifying sentenced inmates. The prison system is designated as a series of overlapping adult subsystems to help inmates with mental health, addiction recovery, basic living skills, job and career development, basic and advanced education, restitution, and health management. Many of these programs need onset before incarceration. These issues are already problems to regular citizens and poorly addressed by the legislature: education, health, mental health, addiction recovery, homelessness, etc. The reconciliation process of moving an inmate back into society is a profound effort fraught with mixed priorities.

    Yes, criminal behavior needs to be confronted and stopped. Yes, the prison system needs to be adapted to what works and what doesn’t for individual inmates.

    We’ve found that truth in sentencing as implemented in the eye for an eye mode is expensive beyond our means. The individual felon functioning level prevented understanding of what the sentencing was about in terms of release from prison.

  2. Some advocates need to stop using tired cliché’s when talking about the need for immediate programming or treatment available to newly incarcerated inmates. The VAST majority of prisoners entering the prison system, especially those with long sentences ahead of them, are not interested in or ready to face the authentic work required to begin the hard work of transforming their attitudes, behaviors, social connections, etc. leading to recovery. Instead, at least for the initial intake and sometimes much longer, they are angry, depressed, not admitting guilt, panicked, fearful, and suffering from a host of other negative but valid emotions. Some will fight their convictions for years. These are not a cohort of individuals who should be included in groups of prisoners who “from day one should be preparing for release.” And, honestly, proposing to help people “recover” from their criminal conduct while they are still housed at the county jail — presumably while still not convicted of the crimes for which they are charged — is meaningless rhetoric which should be disregarded except if services are aimed at convicted jail inmates only. Any ethical lawyer will advise a pre-trial detainee not to make any admissions about his criminal charges, least of all to treatment staff who work at the jail. The Ad hoc Committee is providing a useful outlet for airing grievances and concerns about our justice system, but some of the information is irrelevant, useless and downright misleading or dangerous. Finally, HB 2270 did not even get a committee hearing last year. That “message” should be sufficient to educate AFSC’s Joe Watson and his cronies that asking for the stars, but getting absolutely nothing, should be a strategy that is seriously re-considered.

  3. Thank you to all of the committee members for your willingness first, hard work, patience, and resilience in tackling this issue. It cannot be easy to frequently be in rooms where there are so many sides that the walls feel as though they are closing in. I thank you for existing! And you are not alone.

    I also understand last week’s meeting of the Arizona Department of Corrections Constituent Services Advisory Committee was a welcome surprise in change for the committee to actually talk and brainstorm with excitement and are looking forward to the next meeting.

    What has happened for years and years hasn’t worked. It is time for fresh ideas and moving forward with reforms that may at times be radical. Reforms and restorative justice movements are happening and are working in different ways in different states and prisons.

    I’m just a person in the community, so thank you for giving any of US a voice.

    I would like to share that getting “Tough on Crime” sounded great in campaign promises but now we have the aftermath. One way that may help decrease the sheer overflow could be to reinstate a Parole Board to evaluate earlier release. A starting priority may be given to certain categories such as those over 60, those convicted with long sentences for marijuana involvement, and level 6 felonies.

    I think that if there is a carrot of being able to actually earn one’s way out early via a full folder to hand to a parole hearing could very much be incentives to stay busy improving via every new opportunity. The tablets will hopefully be an avenue of varieties of education also.

    From what I’ve heard over and over is that most people in prison are bored. And I’ve heard from a LOT of them asking about programs. A six-week program isn’t much time to help with any topic. It would seem great if everyone had access to mental health and substance use programs on all during the week basis.

    We can get creative, we can expand peer support training and services, we can also hire outside peer services to lead groups. We can make sure that there are smooth processes for 12 step or recovery programs to be approved to come in.

    We shouldn’t sell people short in their willingness to change. If grown men are so bored that they are coloring (beautiful) pictures?? We are the ones who can explore what will entice someone’s attention based on what other prisons do?

    This article is about a re-entry program that seems to have more structure than we have. We are also seriously needing continuing expansion in the Mental Health and Addiction Services. The “3 day detox” just doesn’t seem to have enough treatment during, and follow up of services for discharge.

    https://www.kolotv.com/content/news/Outpatient-treatment-program-stops-the-revolving-door-for-inmates-561480631.html?fbclid=IwAR0UZ4REKsyYaiiAvd6DXw4m7rScCBY2aYJUT6tfQaorDQ-QIRjQukaifz4

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