Advocates push for sentencing reform at legislature and ballot box




Both at the Capitol and the ballot box, criminal justice reform advocates are hoping to make major strides in scaling back Arizona’s harsh sentencing requirements in 2020 after a year of disappointment in the legislature.

Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, has sponsored legislation allowing inmates convicted of drug offenses to get up to half off their sentences. People convicted of other non-dangerous or non-violent offenses would be able to earn an early release after serving 60 percent of their sentences. 

Arizona’s “truth in sentencing” law currently requires inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, and can earn the opportunity to spend the final portion under community supervision. Blackman’s bill would leave that requirement in place for people convicted of violent offenses.

In order to qualify for early release credits, inmates would have to participate in substance abuse treatment, educational programming, vocational classes or some other type of “major self-improvement program” offered by the Arizona Department of Corrections.

The bill is a successor to Blackman’s House Bill 2270, which died a quiet death in 2019 after Rep. John Allen, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, refused to give it a hearing

One of Blackman’s allies in the unsuccessful fight was the Arizona chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that lobbies for criminal justice reform. The group is still supportive of his goals. But it has its own plans for Arizona’s sentencing laws.

AFSC is pushing a proposed ballot measure that would implement more dramatic sentencing reform than what Blackman is trying to do. The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act, as the proposal is dubbed, would allow non-violent offenders to earn early release for good behavior after serving just 50 percent of their sentences. Unlike Blackman’s bill, it does not tie earned release credits to self-improvement programming.

Joe Watson, a spokesman for AFSC and for the ballot measure campaign, said the organization supports Blackman’s efforts and is cautiously optimistic. But criminal justice reform advocates are tired of waiting for the legislature.

“We’ve given lawmakers really enough time,” Watson said. “This is something that’s been tried in Arizona year after year after year at the state legislature. And while Rep. Blackman has proven to be a champion of this, he has opposition. We’ve had folks at the legislature who say that they’re all for this, and then they end up stonewalling, bait-and-switch, whatever the tactic might be.”

The initiative would allow eligible inmates who have already been convicted to petition the court for resentencing. And judges would be permitted to ignore mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for non-dangerous offenses “when it is in the interest of justice.” Prosecutors and judges would no longer be permitted to sentence first-time offenders as repeat offenders because they’ve committed multiple offenses, a practice that would have been curtailed by legislation that Ducey vetoed in June at the request of the Maricopa and Pima County attorneys.

The current version of the initiative is almost certain to undergo changes. Watson said the committee will re-file an amended version of the initiative with the Secretary of State’s Office in about a month after consulting with stakeholders. Watson said AFSC’s partners on the measure include the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and the Alliance for Safety and Justice.

Advocates must collect at least 237,645 to get the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act on the November ballot.

Some of Blackman’s fellow Republican lawmakers who chair key committees blocked the way for his 2019 sentencing reform bill. He’s confident he can still win over those skeptics. Blackman said he’s spoken with Allen and Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and that both are at least tentatively supportive of the concept. Gov. Doug Ducey is also on board, Blackman said.

Allen and Farnsworth would not comment on Blackman’s proposal. Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for Ducey, said only that the administration has spoken with Blackman and looks forward to working with him and other lawmakers on recidivism issues next session.

If Blackman’s Republican colleagues are hesitant, the ballot measure may inadvertently make his job easier.

It’s unclear exactly how the two measures will differ, given that the initiative will be amended, but Blackman said he believes the proposed ballot measure will allow early release to some people who have committed violent or dangerous offenses. Even if it were a mirror image of Blackman’s bill, laws approved by the voters, unlike those passed by the legislature, are virtually impossible to amend.

The Voter Protection Act, which voters added to the Arizona Constitution in 1998, requires a three-fourths vote in both chambers of the legislature to alter a voter-approved law. Even then, lawmakers can only make changes that further the intent of the voters.

Blackman said lawmakers could be spurred to action on sentencing reform in order to head off the citizen initiative, which would be virtually inalterable if voters approve it.

“I think they may actually try to do something because of the citizen initiative,” Blackman said. “They go a lot further than what I want to do.”

Blackman’s earned release credits legislation is just one of a host of criminal justice reform bills he plans to put forward during the 2020 legislative session.

He hopes to increase the use of diversion programs that would help keep offenders out of prison, and to increase the availability of substance abuse and other programming for people who get sentenced to prison. Another bill would create a student loan repayment program for mental health professionals who work in the correctional system for at least five years. Even if his sentencing reform bill fails, Blackman said additional programming will be needed in case voters pass the ballot measure. 

Blackman said he also plans to introduce legislation requiring the state to compile data on the criminal justice system; provide additional counseling and feminine hygiene products to female inmates; and change Arizona’s criminal sentencing guidelines, among others.

Jeremy Duda
Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. 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.”