Committee bypasses roadblock to revive and pass sentencing reform bill

By: - March 31, 2021 8:48 am

A multi-year push to loosen Arizona’s strict sentencing laws was resurrected Tuesday, despite the resistance of a key Senate Republican who refused to hear the bill.

The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday approved legislation that would allow drug offenders to get out of prison after serving half of their sentences, and other nonviolent offenders to earn up to a third off their sentences. In doing so, the committee circumvented a roadblock that threatened to halt the proposal for the third straight legislative session.

A similar bill, sponsored by Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, passed easily out of the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate after Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, refused to give it a hearing. To get around Petersen, Blackman used a legislative tool known as a strike-everything amendment.

Strike-everything amendments, or strikers, as they’re more commonly known, replace the language of pre-existing legislation its entirety. The advantage in this case is that the Senate bill that the Appropriations Committee amended has already passed out of the Senate. That means it won’t have to be heard in a Senate committee after it passes the House of Representatives, allowing Blackman to bypass Petersen. 

If the House passes the newly amended bill, it can go straight to the Senate floor for a final vote.

Blackman’s sentencing reform bill, now amended onto Senate Bill 1064, would revise Arizona’s “truth in sentencing” law. That law abolished parole and mandated that inmates must serve at least 85% of their sentences. They can qualify for “earned release credits” that allow them to serve the remainder of their sentences on community supervision. A 2019 law allows inmates convicted solely of drug offenses to earn up to 30% off their sentences.

Blackman hopes to expand that program. Under his legislation, drug offenders could take substance abuse classes or other self-improvement programs in prison to get earned release credits that would allow them to serve up to 50% of their sentences on community supervision. Most other nonviolent offenders could earn 33% off their sentences.

The new bill replaces Blackman’s House Bill 2713, which passed unanimously out of his House Criminal Justice Reform Committee and cleared the full House on a bipartisan 47-11 vote.

Though the two bills are identical when it comes to how much inmates can reduce their sentences, there’s one major difference: The old earned release credits bill would have applied retroactively, while nonviolent offenders, not counting those convicted only of drug offenses, will only be eligible if they’ve been convicted after the law goes into effect. The change will still be retroactive for people convicted only of drug offenses.

That change didn’t sit well with some advocates of criminal justice reform.

“We think it’s important that everybody be held to the same standard,” lobbyist Barry Aarons, who represents the pro-reform American Friends Service Committee, told the Appropriations Committee.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who was one of the only two members of the committee to vote against the bill, was also concerned that inmates convicted of similar offenses would have grossly disparate sentences. Kavanagh, a former officer with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, voiced concern that the bill would reduce sentences by so much, saying if harkens back to the indeterminate sentencing laws prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s, though he suggested that Arizona’s criminal sentencing structure should be changed.

But the change brought new supporters into the fold. Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel testified in person at the committee, touting the new bill as a “sensible and meaningful sentencing reform” that keeps the promises made to crime victims.

“This change is essential to honoring the constitutional rights and the voices of crime victims in this state. A prospective application of this reform means that victims previously assured by prosecutors and by judges that the person who committed a crime against them… would serve a specific amount of time. And they can rely on those promises that were made,” Adel said.

Adel and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office took no position on Blackman’s previous earned release credits legislation.

James Hamm, from the inmate advocacy organization Middle Ground Prison Reform, was critical of Blackman’s previous bill when he testified in the House Criminal Justice Reform Committee in February, questioning whether it went too far in releasing inmates before they were ready to rejoin society. But on Tuesday, he spoke in support of SB1064, saying it now strikes a proper balance.

“It avoids the issue of asking for too much and getting nothing, which is just about where we were until the end. We do think that incremental reform is the way to go,” Hamm said.

Several supporters said they expect the bill to undergo additional changes before it gets a final vote in the House. Mesnard called it a “work in progress,” while Rep. Regina Cobb, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said it will take a lot of work over the next few weeks for supporters of the bill to ensure a consensus. It was unclear exactly what changes they wanted to see.

Some supporters raised concerns about whether the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reetnry has the capacity to provide enough programming for inmates who will be eligible for earned release credits.

KJZZ reported last month that the department was keeping inmates past their release dates because the software it uses to track release dates wasn’t able to account for the earlier releases that some inmates qualified for under the 2019 law for drug offenders. The department has denied that the software is causing it to keep inmates past their release dates.

And inmate advocacy organizations have received reports from prisoners and their loved ones about shortages of programming that has been curtailed during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the department’s statistics, 26,390 inmates were enrolled in programming in February, compared to 30,409 a year earlier.

Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, said the corrections department needs to be involved in discussions on the bill, and lawmakers need to find out whether they need funding for things like new software or additional personnel to ensure that it can comply with the earlier release dates.

“This plan has great vision and great intentions. But we also have to make sure we put the tools in place so the plan can be properly executed. And if (ADCRR) cannot properly execute this plan, then we are failing,” Friese said. “We must make sure that we can carry out the plan and not simply take credit for passing a bill.”

Blackman said he’s confident that ADCRR can handle the increased demand for inmate programming.

“They’ve acknowledged that they can accommodate the bill in its capacity, in its present form now with the striker language. We’ve been speaking with them for three years,” he said.

Correction: The original version of this story inaccurate stated that the new earned release credits won’t apply to anyone convicted before the law goes into effect. Drug offenders will be retroactively eligible, while the change will be prospective other nonviolent offenders.

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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.”