GOP criminal justice reform advocate lays out ambitious 2020 agenda

By: - September 27, 2019 1:15 pm

Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake. Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror

As the sentencing reform committee he chairs works on potentially landmark legislation for the next session, Rep. Walter Blackman is working on a handful of other criminal justice reform proposals that he hopes will lay the groundwork for what will most likely be a protracted fight.

Blackman hopes to pass legislation next session to create more diversionary programs that will keep people from being arrested for nonviolent crimes, create more programs with the corrections system aimed at cutting down on recidivism, provide more oversight for the Arizona Department of Corrections, and standardize the way that government entities in Arizona use to track and report criminal justice data.

The House Ad Hoc Committee on Earned Release Credits for Prisoners, which Blackman chairs, is working toward the goal of crafting sentencing reform legislation for the 2020 session. At a committee meeting earlier this month, Blackman mentioned that he had a package of other reform proposals he was working on for next year.

The big prize for Blackman, a Republican from Snowflake, is legislation on “earned release credits” that will allow inmates to earn earlier releases from prison. Arizona’s 1993 “truth in sentencing” law requires people to serve at least 85 percent of their prison sentences. 

Blackman sponsored an ambitious bill last session to reduce that strict sentencing requirement, but it died in committee without ever getting a hearing. He said the new package of bills he’s working on will help smooth the way for the net push for sentencing reform. 

“We didn’t have anything like this to set the groundwork for earned release credits. We just put out a bill for earned release credits but didn’t have this stuff to build the foundation, to fund it properly and to make sure that DOC … could facilitate all these things,” Blackman told Arizona Mirror.

Blackman’s package of bills will include:

  • The Arizona Criminal Justice Data Transparency Act, which would create a model for reporting criminal justice data by state and local agencies. That data would be reported annually to the governor’s office, legislature and sentencing reform committee. The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission is working on a similar plan, the Arizona Capitol Times reported. 
  • A pre-arrest diversion program that would allow police officers to issue civil citations for certain nonviolent misdemeanor offenses that don’t have victims, primily drug offenses.
  • A Recidivism Reduction Act that would create a four-year supervision program for certain offenders.
  • New protections for female inmates, including family visitation rights, restrictions on access for male correctional officers and care requirements for pregnant women.
  • Provisional occupational licenses for former offenders who are barred from licenses due to their felony records. 
  • An independent oversight board that would monitor the Department of Corrections and recommendations on improving the agency, which would be reported to a new ombudsman.
  • A loan repayment program for mental health professionals who work in the Department of Corrections.
  • The Arizona First Step Act, which would implement policies from the Federal First Step Act at the state level.

At least to start with, Blackman is looking to implement some of his proposals into pilot programs that could be expanded later on. He hopes to fund the pilot programs by ending an annual sweep of about $6 million from the Department of Corrections.

Blackman said the majority of lawmakers support earned release credits legislation. But to pass it, he and other advocates have to convince two key committee chairs who blocked plethora of criminal justice reform legislation last session: Rep. John Allen and Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, who chair their chambers’ judiciary committees.

While Allen refused to hear last session’s sentencing reform bill and Farnsworth was also skeptical about the proposal, Blackman said he believes he can earn their support for some of his other plans for 2020. Blackman said Farnsworth has been receptive to his data transparency proposal, and he hopes to work with both chairmen on his other legislation.

“If they just say ‘no’ just to say ‘no,’ that’s disheartening. But there are a lot of ways we can move forward with this and try to get some of these bills across the line,” Blackman said.

He will also have to win over Gov. Doug Ducey, who vetoed one of the few criminal justice reform bills to reach his desk in 2019. Reducing professional licensing requirements has been one of Ducey’s top agenda items over the past several years, and Blackman was optimistic that the governor will be amenable to his licensing proposal.

Whatever happens in 2020, Blackman acknowledged that his criminal justice reform agenda will be a multi-year effort.

“This is something that’s not going to happen in just … one session,” he said.

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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.”