A bill that would reduce Arizona’s harsh criminal sentencing requirements passed its first hurdle of the new legislative session, giving hope to advocates that 2021 might be different than the past two years, where early optimism quickly turned into disappointment.

The House Criminal Justice Reform Committee on Wednesday advanced several pieces of legislation, including Rep. Walt Blackman’s House Bill 2713. The measure, which Blackman has been trying to pass since he arrived at the Capitol in 2019, would allow some prison inmates to earn an earlier release date if they participate in self-improvement programs while behind bars.

Arizona’s “truth in sentencing” law, passed in 1993, requires inmates to serve at least 85% of their sentences. Legislation passed in 2019 lowers that threshold to 70% for inmates convicted solely of drug offenses. Inmates who participate in programming while in prison can get earned release credits allowing them to serve out the remainder of their sentences under community supervision.

But the 2019 bill leaves most inmates without a way to reduce their sentences, regardless of good behavior, self-improvement or other factors. That’s where HB2713 comes in.

Blackman’s legislation would allow inmates convicted of non-violent or non-dangerous offenses to earn up to 33% off their sentences, while drug offenders would be able get out after serving as little as half of their sentences.

Leah Farrington, a volunteer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice, said the legislation would make about 16,000 inmates eligible for an earlier release date. Of those, more than 5,000 have already completed or are currently enrolled in the programming they’d need to qualify for earned release credits under the proposal.

Numerous advocates and former inmates testified about the opportunities that an earlier release date could provide for those who are behind bars and for their families.

Alexandria Hunt told the committee that she served five years in prison during two sentences. After her first conviction, she learned she didn’t meet the qualifications for the earlier release date she’d been told she would be eligible for, leaving her husband to care for their infant son by himself.

“Just those few months made a huge difference for us,” Hunt said.

Several speakers described the hope that earned release credits give inmates and the opportunities they provide to better themselves and prepare for life on the outside. 

Claire Tate’s husband is currently incarcerated for drug offenses at the state prison in Douglas. Their daughter was a newborn when he was first imprisoned. Now, she’s four years old.

Tate said earned release credits give “hope to the hopeless.” For some, the current system provides a dim light at the end of the tunnel, she said, but for many others there’s no light at all.

“A hopeful heart makes the difference between somebody returning downtrodden and dehumanized after being warehoused, and someone who has made the most of their time separate from the community, who has a fresh outlook on life and who is ready to step out upon release, eager to contribute to society,” Tate said.

“This thing has taken about three years to really work on,” said Blackman, a Republican from Snowflake.

Several witnesses raised objections to Blackman’s legislation, with some testifying that the bill would go too far and others saying it didn’t go far enough.

Barry Aarons, a lobbyist for the Arizona chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that advocates for criminal justice reform, urged Blackman to make several dramatic changes, such as expanding it to include inmates convicted of violent offenses, and not tying early release dates to programming. 

People convicted of violent crimes should have the right to show that they’ve been rehabilitated, Aarons said. And as for programming, Aarons was skeptical that the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry had the capacity to provide the classes for everyone who wants or needs it.

“We hope that this is only the beginning. This needs to go further,” Aarons said.

Conversely, Ryan Boyd, a lobbyist for the Arizona Association of Counties, said the majority of the state’s county attorneys have concerns. While the 15 county attorneys have a variety of opinions, they’re especially concerned that it would apply to people who are currently serving their time in prison.

Victims of crimes have expectations about how long offenders will serve, Boyd said, and under HB2713 they’d see many prisoners getting released earlier than they’d been told would happen.

“That’s why we’re here, really trying to see what we can do about that retroactivity and how it undermines the truth-in-sentencing provisions that we’ve built up in Arizona over time to give that certainty to victims and provide that security,” Boyd said.

James Hamm, of the inmate advocacy organization Middle Ground Prison Reform, also voiced concerns about the bill. Hamm said his organization supports expanding earned release credits, but was concerned that drug offenders could be released after serving only 50% of their sentences, regardless of whether they’d corrected their behavior or whether it was appropriate to release them.

Hamm also worried that the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry would be able to use disciplinary actions that would make it harder for inmates to qualify for earned release credits.

The legislation is Blackman’s third attempt at sentencing reform. His first bill in 2019 stalled out after the then-chairman of the House Judiciary Committee refused to give it a hearing. The 2020 version seemed to be sailing toward passage, winning a unanimous vote in the full House of Representatives. But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the session, including Blackman’s earned release credits legislation.

The committee, which Blackman chairs, passed the bill unanimously, though one member, Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, said he had concerns that he’d like to see addressed before the full House of Representatives votes on it.

The House Criminal Justice Reform Committee passed several other notable bills on Wednesday.

House Bill 2320 would allow people convicted of nonviolent offenses to petition a judge to seal records of their arrests, convictions and prison sentences after as little as two years for class 2 and 3 misdemeanors and 10 years for class 2 or 3 felonies. Another bill the committee passed, House Bill 2491, would allow people to clear their records of wrongful arrests, including those who are acquitted after being charged. 

“The fundamental question is, do we believe in true second chances as a state in allowing the scarlet F, the scarlet ‘felon’ designation, to at some point be removed? Do we create a process where somehow that can happen?” said Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, who sponsored HB2320.

Several former inmates testified to the committee about the ways felony convictions make it difficult to find housing and employment, no matter how long they’ve been out of prison or how long their records have been clean. 

Hunt told the committee that people who get released from prison are often turned away from jobs or housing without a second look. She said she’s spent the past five months looking for a new place to live because the property management company that bought her apartment complex won’t allow her to live there anymore.

“A conviction should not operate as an automatic disqualification for jobs and housing,” Hunt said. “All I want is a chance to truly be a part of that community and provide for my family.”

The only objection to Toma’s bill came from Daniel Arellano on behalf of Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., which publishes The Arizona Republic, and KPNX. Arellano said HB2320 would block the press and the public from accessing records of things like court proceedings that are currently public records. An old case could become a matter of public concern years after the fact, he said, but the media wouldn’t be able to report on it if the records were sealed.

“The media is always interested in public records and must have the ability to report on matters of public concern. Court proceedings and criminal proceedings are matters of public concern,” Arellano said.

Another Blackman bill passed by the committee, House Bill 2165, would allow some inmates to serve parts of their sentences under a home arrest program. Blackman’s House Bill 2601, which the committee also passed, would allow prisoners to count time served under electronic monitoring prior to their imprisonment as time served for their sentences.