Incremental movement on justice reform, but ‘the big stuff is toast’ in 2021




    Photo by Darrin Klimek | Getty Images

    Several noteworthy criminal justice reform bills are working their way through the legislative process, but a major sentencing reform proposal that advocates have spent three years pushing is among the legislation that appears destined to fall short.

    Thursday is the deadline for Senate committees to hear House bills, and vice versa. And the final Senate Judiciary Committee agenda before the deadline hits has some notable omissions.

    House Bill 2713, Rep. Walt Blackman’s proposal to loosen Arizona’s notoriously strict criminal sentencing laws, passed easily in the House of Representatives, but will die in the Senate after Sen. Warren Petersen refused to give it a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Blackman, who has been trying to pass sentencing reform legislation since he arrived at the Capitol in 2019, called it “disheartening” to see his bill fail again.

    Arizona’s “truth in sentencing” law requires most inmates to serve at least 85% of their sentences. Inmates can get “earned release credits” that allow them to get out early and serve up to 15% of their sentences under community supervision if they complete substance abuse or other self-improvement programs. A 2019 law allows people convicted solely of drug offenses to earn up to 30% of their sentences off.

    Blackman’s bill would expand earned release credits to allow drug offenders to reduce their sentences by half and other nonviolent offenders to take up to 33% off of their sentences. The bill passed unanimously in Blackman’s House Criminal Justice Reform Committee and got 47 votes in the 60-member House. He insists it has enough support to pass in the Senate, as well. But it likely won’t get that chance.

    “I would like for the bill to have been heard so members can make up their own mind. Everybody is down here to legislate. We may not like the bills that we hear. We just don’t vote for them, then. In my committee, there were bills that I didn’t like. However, I heard them because the legislator that submitted their bill is down here to legislate,” Blackman, a Republican from Snowflake, told the Arizona Mirror.

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    This isn’t the first time Blackman’s efforts have hit a wall because a committee chairman wouldn’t hear his bill. The first iteration of his sentencing reform bill in 2019 died quietly after the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee refused to give it a hearing. That same chairman agreed to hear the follow-up bill in 2020, and the House passed it. But it was among the scores of bills that died after the legislature went on hiatus in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Lobbyist Barry Aarons, who represents the Arizona chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, said it’s unfortunate to see the sentencing reform bill go down in apparent defeat again, considering the breadth of the coalition that advocates have put together in support of the bill.

    “You’re talking about some of your hardest conservatives and some of your most progressive liberals. It’s tough to get those folks together, and they did on this,” Aarons said.

    Another casualty of Thursday’s deadline and Petersen’s recalcitrance is Blackman’s House Bill 2167, which would create an ombudsman and oversight committee for the troubled Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry. The bill won’t get a hearing in the Judiciary Committee, even though it received 38 votes in the House.

    Blackman was dismayed by the failure of the corrections oversight bill. The myriad lawsuits, massive costs and lack of transparency at the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry makes it clear that such oversight is sorely needed.

    Petersen: We don’t want to ‘go too far’ on reforms

    Other House bills have hit the same brick wall in the Senate Judiciary Committee, including legislation that would allow judges to ignore mandatory minimum sentencing requirements in some cases, require counties to compile criminal justice case information, and require the corrections department to provide free tampons and other feminine hygiene products to women inmates upon request, along with other changes, such as prohibiting the shackling of pregnant inmates during childbirth.

    Petersen’s refusal to hear the earned release credits bill comes as little surprise. The Gilbert Republican told the Arizona Mirror in January, “I don’t plan on major criminal justice reform changes in year one.” 

    The Senate Judiciary Committee has passed a “significant amount” of criminal justice reform bills this year, Petersen said, “Enough to see a big difference in Arizona.” But he said he’s wary of moving too fast on criminal justice reform. 

    “We need to let those laws take effect, bake a little and reassess next year as to what more we should do. What I don’t want to do is go too far and risk the lives and safety of our citizens,” Petersen said.

    He declined to comment on why he won’t hear the ombudsman bill for the Department of Corrections.

    Aarons said it’s no surprise that Petersen declined to hear big-ticket bills on things like earned release credits. But he was hopeful that Petersen might be willing to hear them in future years.

    “I always heard him say he wasn’t going to do that this year. I never got the feeling he was adamantly opposed to those bills. And you know, next year, who knows what will be different? Who knows what circumstances will be different? I never say never,” Aarons said.

    Smaller victories in 2021 for justice reform

    Petersen is correct in that he has heard some noteworthy criminal justice bills in his committee this session. His committee, along with both chambers of the legislature, passed Rep. Ben Toma’s bill to curb prosecutors’ ability to charge first-time offenders as repeat offenders, which Gov. Doug Ducey signed on Wednesday. The Senate Judiciary Committee also approved legislation to allow offenders to retroactively change some minor felony convictions to misdemeanors.

    Petersen heard a bill that would require prosecutors to get a conviction before seizing people’s property through civil asset forfeiture. And on Thursday, his committee will hear House Speaker Rusty Bowers’s bill to make it easier for some people to remove their names from the state’s sex offender registry

    Another bill, which went through the Senate Government Committee instead of the Judiciary Committee, would require law enforcement to accurately measure noise levels in order to prosecute someone for a public nuisance crime. Marilyn Rodriguez, a lobbyist who represents a coalition of criminal justice reform advocates, said the bill is a criminal justice reform measure, though she said many Democratic lawmakers disagree. An identical bill made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee but failed by two votes on the Senate floor. 

    “The big stuff died. … The big stuff, the really meaningful stuff. Which isn’t to say there isn’t incremental stuff moving forward that isn’t great. But the big stuff is toast, and that’s a real shame,” Rodriguez said.

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    There are ways to circumvent the Senate Judiciary Committee, and lawmakers are looking to use them. 

    After Toma’s bill to allow people to seal records related to arrests and convictions failed to get a hearing, he instead worked out an agreement to amend it onto a Senate bill being heard in Blackman’s criminal justice reform committee through a mechanism known as a strike-everything amendment, in which a bill is essentially replaced wholesale by different legislation. 

    Blackman’s committee on Wednesday approved the language of Toma’s bill. Because the Senate has already passed the original bill, it won’t have to go back to committee in that chamber and would instead proceed directly to the Senate floor for a final vote, presuming the full House of Representatives passes it.

    “The reason we have the striker process, I think this is a good example of that,” said Toma, a Peoria Republican. “There are ways to move things forward even if there are roadblocks.”

    Blackman suggested that he may try to do the same with his earned release credits bill. Toma said Blackman is working on a possible deal for a strike-everything amendment in the House Appropriations Committee. Unlike other committees, the for appropriations committees isn’t until next week.

    “There are other avenues and we’re looking at those other avenues,” Blackman said. “I bent over backwards to accommodate and be respectful and … use the correct system. And that doesn’t seem to work, so we do have other things that we’re looking at trying to do.”