Arizona legislators are squaring off on the possibility of making changes that could ease tough criminal sentencing laws, with one key lawmaker pouring cold water on the idea and another saying he’s trying to build consensus for several changes.
A House study panel was briefed Wednesday on an Auditor General’s Office report. Besides building more prisons, listed big-picture options include reducing prison time for certain offenders and increasing use of probation, home arrest and other alternatives to prison.
The panel’s chairman, Republican Rep. Cecil Ash of Mesa, later said specific ideas being considered for possible introduction as 2011 legislation include creation of a commission to propose changes to sentencing laws.
Others are giving judges more discretion on whether a defendant’s multiple sentences could be served consecutively instead of concurrently and reducing the current “truth in sentencing” requirement that most offenders serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, Ash said.
Ash said reasons to consider changes include making the criminal justice system fairer and saving money now being spent on its costly prison system at a time when schools face possible budget cuts.
“It’s time for this Legislature to re-examine things because I’m not willing to trust the judgment of legislators decades ago under different circumstances,” Ash said. “Our purpose is not to jeopardize public safety in any way, but there are things that need to be corrected.”
However, the next chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said he wasn’t interested in reducing penalties or releasing inmates early, whether or not the state has budget troubles.
“Those folks need to be punished and the public needs to be kept safe,” Republican Sen. Ron Gould of Lake Havasu City said during a telephone interview. He said he hadn’t read the auditor general’s report, which was released Oct. 1.
Gould also was critical that Ash has cited a child pornography case as an example of an overly harsh sentence. The man was sentenced to 20 consecutive sentences of 10 years each, adding up to 200 years in prison.
Bills on criminal sentencing normally have to be endorsed by each legislative chamber’s judiciary committee, so Gould’s disinclination to even have his Senate committee consider legislation easing sentencing requirements would pose a major obstacle to passage.
Gov. Jan Brewer’s chief lobbyist, Scott Smith, sat in the audience during the House panel’s hearing. He later told reporters that the general subject of sentencing changes hadn’t been discussed by Brewer and her staff, but he said that she certainly wasn’t interested in easing penalties in child pornography cases.
The state’s prison population of approximately 40,000 inmates is 10 times bigger now than it was 30 years ago, a time span that saw only a doubling of the state’s overall population.
With the growth of the inmate population, the prison system is now the third largest expense — behind K-12 schools and health care — borne by the state’s general fund — accounting for 11.2 percent of the $8.5 billion budget.
Ash said two states with similarly sized populations have half as many prisoners as Arizona, suggesting that Arizona attracts criminals, that the other states are doing something wrong or that Arizona is, Ash said.
Gould’s critical position regarding possible sentencing legislation was reported previously by the Arizona Guardian.