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Time has come for sentencing reform

In 1990, a 31-year old man went into a Fry’s grocery store. When no one was looking, he picked up a carton of cigarettes and walked quickly to the exit. All of this was captured on the store video, and he was apprehended in the parking lot with the carton of cigarettes and no receipt.

This offense could have been prosecuted as a misdemeanor, given the value of the cigarettes ($16.95). A misdemeanor may carry up to six months in jail. However, the prosecutor at the time elected to charge it as a felony, since he entered the store for the purpose of committing a crime. Because the defendant had two previous, non- related convictions, he was sentenced to prison for 8.3 years.

Question No. 1: Do taxpayers of the state want to pay $20,000 or more per year to incarcerate people for this kind of a crime?

Question No. 2: In this case, who had the greatest say in what the time served would be? The prosecutor or the judge? The apparent answer is the prosecutor. But ultimately the fate of this defendant was sealed by the members of the Legislature who set up the mandatory- sentencing parameters of our criminal code.

In 2008, Arizona spent $951 million to incarcerate felons, many of whom posed no danger to the general public. A recent Pew Center report indicates that in 2008, one in 33 adults in Arizona was under correctional control, which includes jail, prison, parole and probation. Twenty-five years ago, this number was one in 79. What has changed so much is not human nature, but the offenses for which we incarcerate and the imposition of mandatory sentences.

In these times when budget deficits are mushrooming, it is time to take a fresh look at the sentencing structure of the state’s criminal code. For this reason, House Speaker Kirk Adams has appointed an “Interim Committee on Sentencing Reform” to evaluate the effectiveness of our criminal code.

All of us agree that the public must be protected from dangerous and repetitive offenders. But it is time to acknowledge that with new technologies and evidence-based sentencing, the state may be able to have a more effective criminal justice system at lower cost. And everyone agrees that there are plenty of other places in the state budget where the savings can be used.

At 9 a.m. on Dec. 15, the House Interim Committee on Sentencing Reform will hold its first meeting. Public comment is invited, by testimony, mail or e-mail. The committee will consider who needs to be incarcerated as a matter of public safety, and what evidence-based sentencing alternatives can reduce recidivism and rehabilitate, rather than simply warehouse offenders.

Send comments to Committee on Sentencing Reform, 1700 W. Washington, Phoenix, AZ 85007. Direct e-mail to the committee members:

Representatives Cecil Ash (Chair), Kyrsten Sinema, Doris Goodale, Laurin Hendrix, and Anna Tovar.

With input from the public, the judiciary, and criminal justice agencies, this bi-partisan effort will yield savings to Arizona and, in some cases, redirect inmates’ misspent years into more productive use.

- Cecil Ash is a Republican who represents District 18 in the Arizona House of Representatives.

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