Three Republicans bolted party ranks today as the Senate killed legislation which would have meant longer minimum prison sentences for people who commit crimes while in the country illegally.
The 14-16 vote against SB1279 came despite exhortations from Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, who said it only makes sense to ensure that people who already are breaking federal law don’t get a chance to continue to prey on Arizonans.
And, if they needed an example, Smith cited 21-year-old Grant Ronnebeck, who was shot and killed two years ago while working at a Mesa convenience store by someone not in this country legally. More to the point, he said the suspect in that case had committed a prior burglary and rape but was placed on probation, enabling him to kill Ronnebeck.
“He didn’t serve a day in jail,” Smith said.
As the vote tally was going against him, Smith pointed out that Grant’s father, Steve, was watching in the Senate gallery along with family members of others who were killed by people not in this country legally. And when that maneuver failed to move foes of the legislation, he sought to shame them by telling them they should justify their votes directly to family members.
But Smith said he thinks he knows the answer: the hangover from SB1070, the 2010 legislation designed to give police more power to detain and arrest those who are not in this country legally. It got national attention and resulted in financial implications for the state, as tourism and convention bookings fell off.
“If that is your reason, because tourism might suffer in Arizona if we pass another immigration bill… I want you to meet those family members and you tell me how many tourism dollars, if they were to be lost, is worth it to their children not being here anymore,” he said.
“I think it is just sad that we have a bill that will directly help families in our state and in our country, but because of one political pressure or another, that I haven’t heard yet, you’re going to go ahead and defeat this bill,” Smith said. And if that sits well in your conscience, let it sit well.”
But Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, said Smith misrepresented the facts.
“None of these laws… would have saved Grant’s life,” he said.
“It was a failure of the prosecutor,” Worsley said. He said if the man who killed Grant had been tried and convicted of the prior burglary and rape he would have been sent to prison.
So why not speak up?
“We didn’t want to make a scene on the floor,” Worsley said of himself and fellow Republicans Kate Brophy McGee of Phoenix and Frank Pratt of Casa Grande.
And he called Smith’s criticism of those who did not side with him “over the top.”
Brophy McGee said her vote against the measure is based on the belief that it’s not necessary.
She pointed out that lawmakers voted last year to repeal a law that allowed the Arizona Department of Corrections to release to immigration officials those who are not here legally after they had served half their prison term, a move that originally passed a decade earlier as a way of saving state dollars. Now they must serve at least 85 percent of their terms, the same as other inmates.
Brophy McGee also said there were questions about whether the state can impose different sentencing standards on people based solely on whether they are violating a federal law by being in this country legally. And she, like Worsley, said it is wrong for Smith to question her motives.
“I think every senator is expected to vote their conscience and what they believe is right,” Brophy McGee said. “And I think it’s incumbent on fellow senators to respect that.”
The legislation said judges sentencing someone convicted of a felony must impose at least the “presumptive sentence” required by law if the person is in this country illegally. That means more time behind bars – sometimes, years long – than what is now an option for judges.
Potentially more significant, SB1279 would have eliminated the possibility of parole.
Smith ushered a similar measure through the Senate last year before it died in the House. This year, the slightly altered version did not even clear the Senate.