Fentanyl crimes would face stiffer sentences under GOP lawmaker’s proposal

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A Prescott Republican lawmaker is pushing to impose harsher prison sentences for dealing fentanyl, even while supporting a broader push for criminal justice reform that would reduce the number of Arizonans behind bars.

Rep. Steve Pierce sponsored House Bill 2036, which would impose new mandatory sentencing requirements for people convicted of selling or distributing fentanyl, heroin of carfentanil.

Under Pierce’s bill, the minimum prison sentence for a first conviction for the sale, possession for sale, manufacture or transportation for sale of the opioid drugs would be five years, with a presumptive sentence of 10 years and a maximum of 15 years. Someone who has previously been convicted of such charges would face a minimum 10-year sentence and a maximum of 20 years.

The offenses covered by HB2036 are class 2 and 3 felonies under current law. For first-time offenders, class 2 felonies carry minimum sentences of 4 years and maximum sentences of 10 years, while class 3 felonies have a 2.5-year minimum and a 7-year maximum.

Pierce said he sponsored the bill at the behest of constituents. Sheila Polk, Yavapai county’s influential tough-on-crime county attorney, is one of several people who initially brought the bill to Pierce and his seatmates, he said, but wasn’t the main driver behind the legislation.

While Pierce said he’s generally supportive of the recent trend toward criminal justice reform, which has included attempts at sentencing reform, he said he supports longer sentences for people who distribute fentanyl because of how dangerous the synthetic opioid is. He noted that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that there was a 113% increase in fentanyl overdose deaths from 2013 to 2016. He said there were 16 overdose deaths from fentanyl in Yavapai County last year, and 8 so far this year.

However, that doesn’t mean Pierce won’t support reforms in other areas.

“There’s a lot of people in jail probably for lesser crimes. Maybe that’s what we need to look at. We can’t afford to keep locking people up for everything, and I believe we need some judicial reforms,” Pierce said. 

“But if you’re going out and peddling fentanyl and it’s killing people and they know it, that isn’t good.”

Pierce said he believes the justice reform trend may make it difficult to pass his bill, and he told its supporters as much.

Rebecca Fealk, a program coordinator for the Arizona chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group that advocates for criminal justice reform, said Pierce’s bill won’t do anything to help public safety. She argued that it will only contribute to the incarceration crisis in Arizona, which already has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the United States.

“That just means that that money is going into the prison system. It doesn’t go into treatment. It doesn’t go into counseling. It doesn’t actually make our community safer,” she said.

Though the legislation wouldn’t impose stricter penalties for simple possession of fentanyl and heroin, and Pierce said his goal is to target people who push the drug, Fealk said there’s a “very blurry line” in state law that allows people who get caught with small amounts of drugs for personal use to be charged with intent to distribute. 

If Pierce wants to imprison fewer people, Fealk said his bill is counterproductive.

“That logic just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said.

Pierce was appointed to the legislature in April to replace David Stringer, who resigned his seat in the Arizona House of Representatives after an investigation found that he was accused in the 1980s of paying young boys for sex in Maryland.

Pierce’s fentanyl legislation will be taken up by the legislature when it returns to work in January.