Committee recommends reduced sentencing requirements, but GOP wary of details

By: - December 2, 2019 3:31 pm

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A committee tasked with crafting criminal sentencing reform proposals for the upcoming legislative session has finished its work, but the heavy lifting lies ahead, as even some of the committee’s Republican members aren’t yet sold on its key recommendation.

The House Ad Hoc Committee on Earned Release Credits for Prisoners concluded its sixth and final meeting Monday. Chief among its recommendations is that the legislature reduce Arizona’s strict sentencing requirements so that people convicted of class 4, 5 or 6 felonies are eligible to earn an early release after serving only 60 percent of their prison sentences. Inmates could get earned release credits equal to three days off their sentences for every five days served.

Arizona’s “truth in sentencing” law currently requires inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, giving the state one of the harshest sentencing mandates in the country. Inmates who participate in education, substance abuse or other programs while behind bars can serve the final 15 percent under community supervision.

Though the vote was unanimous among the four Republicans and three Democrats who attended the hearing, some GOP members were skeptical about the proposed reduction, which committee chairman Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, said originated with the Democratic members.

Blackman, who led the fight for sentencing reform during the 2019 session with an ambitious bill to reduce the 85-percent requirement, said he needs more details before he can support the Democrats’ 60-percent proposal when lawmakers return to work in January. 

He said he wants to know how large a population of inmates the recommendation would apply to. He also questioned whether it would apply to violent or dangerous criminals – something he opposes – and whether the Arizona Department of Corrections has enough programming available for all inmates who would be eligible to earn an early release.

“I would have to take a very good look at that. Right now, just on the outside, I wouldn’t support a 60 percent release without the structure I was talking about,” Blackman said.

Last session, Blackman sponsored House Bill 2270, which would have reduced the sentencing requirement to 75 percent for violent offenses and 50 percent for all others. Blackman planned to scale back his bill so it wouldn’t apply to violent offenses and to 65 percent for others.

Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, said that the committee has heard a lot from people who believe criminal justice reform must be data-driven, and said it would be irresponsible for lawmakers to move forward on any proposals without data to back it up.

“I believe in responsible reform. But that being said, public safety is always first and foremost in my mind,” Roberts said.

After the committee adjourned, Roberts said he’d need to see more data before he’d be willing to support a 60-percent sentencing requirement. 

“I’ve always referred to myself as a pump-the-brakes kind of a person in regards to this because we have to be responsible for the public safety,” he said. 

While the recent push at the legislature for criminal justice and sentencing reform has been bipartisan, some of the Democratic members noted that last session’s proposals failed due to opposition from powerful Republican committee chairmen. Rep. John Allen, R-Phoenix, and Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who chair their chambers’ respective judiciary committees, refused to give hearings to several reform bills, including Blackman’s.

Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, said his constituents have been clear that things must change. But he said “gatekeepers” in the legislature have prevented previous proposals from even coming up for debate.

Rodriguez urged Arizonans to hold their legislators accountable on the issue.

“No matter how effective I may or may not be, the fact of the matter remains that the majority party is going to set the agenda on this issue. And you should know that you have people on the other side of (the) aisle who are willing and waiting to help you get this done,” he said. “This is our time in history to do this.”

And Rep. Domingo DeGrazia, D-Tucson, recalled that, even before 2019, Republican committee chairmen killed off Democratic legislation on sentencing reform that was similar to Blackman’s bill from last year. Like Rodriguez, he urged people to reach out to their legislators.

“Give these folks a call. Say that you want these bills to get a hearing so that we can get public discourse in committee so that we can get votes, so that we can push them and get the bills passed,” DeGrazia said. 

If Allen and Farnsworth, or any other committee chairs, continue blocking the path for justice reform, there may be ways around them and the entire committee process. Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, pointed out to Arizona Mirror after Monday’s hearing that legislation that hasn’t gone through a committee can be inserted into the budget, or passed using a strike-everything amendment during the traditionally frenzied final hours of the legislative session.

But not all obstacles are on the GOP side, said Toma, who has been a leading justice reform advocate in the legislature and served as the committee’s vice chair. Toma said Democrats will likely have to show a greater willingness to compromise than they have in years past if they want to pass real reform. 

“One of the toughest things we do here as legislators is to decide how far we can compromise before we’re compromised, in terms of what we actually believe in,” Toma said. “But taking the position that it’s not good enough, so I’m not going to do it, that’s the same sort of thing that comes from the other side when it comes to, say, education funding or any number of other issues.”

In addition to the reduced sentencing requirement, the committee unanimously approved several other recommendations, including:

  • Establish a citizen oversight board for the Department of Corrections
  • Increase funding and capacity for drug treatment, education and other transition and re-entry programs
  • Increase the use of public-private partnerships for inmate re-entry programs
  • Expand the use of deferred prosecution and ensure that it’s available statewide
  • Require state and local law enforcement agencies to report complete, accurate and timely data, and make that data available to the governor’s office and legislature
  • Prohibit the consideration of drug offenses as prior offenses for non-drug criminal charges
  • The creation of a publicly accessible statewide database of criminal justice data, including information on charging, sentencing, and prison demographic data
  • Utilize tech academies for fully staff GED programs
  • Remove eight grade literacy as a requirement for inmates to qualify for community supervision

The committee will produce a white paper outlining its recommendations. Blackman did not have a timetable for the completion of that white paper.

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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.”