A new law signed Friday by Gov. Doug Ducey will give people a better chance of knowing — and protesting — before new prison facilities are dropped in their neighborhoods.
HB 2133 spells out exactly what the Department of Corrections has to do at least 45 days ahead of time when it is planning any sort of correctional facility, ranging from full-blown prisons to half-way houses and community reentry facilities. That includes not only local school officials but every property owner within a two-mile radius.
That notice also requires people to be told how many inmates will be housed at the facility and what security level they are.
And there has to be a public hearing with notice of at least 10 days.
This isn’t just an academic exercise. Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, who crafted the measure, said it came after Gov. Doug Ducey decided to create a reentry center in Maricopa County and the Department of Corrections plopped it down in north Phoenix.
She said the agency followed all the laws about who needed to be notified. But Carter said those laws, first crafted in the 1970s, are woefully inadequate.
Carter said only two people actually showed up for the hearing the agency actually had.
There was notice to lawmakers and school district governing boards. But Carter said these notices were not only unclear but were sent to work addresses where people did not get them until after the decision was made.
And Carter said there were other problems with the old law. For example, she said there is a requirement to notify nearby schools.
“Well, who do you notify in the school?” Carter she said. “Do you notify just the school? Do you notify just the board members? The statute was fairly unclear.”
And Carter said there was no mandate to notify the operators of charter schools or even day care centers. So the siting that took place, near the Adobe Mountain juvenile corrections center, came as a surprise to the neighbors.
Carter said she would not characterize the department’s actions as sneaking it in.
“We wanted to make sure that, going forward, there’s a true statutory process for community notification.” Carter said.
Going forward, the legislation leaves little room for doubt about who gets told and when.
Aside from property owners within two miles, notice also needs to go out to the superintendent and each member of the governing board of schools within five miles. The same for those who run charter schools and operators of child care facilities.
Then there’s a requirement for a public hearing, with not only a legal notice published in a newspaper but a sign, at least 4-by-8 feet, erected on the site where the facility will go at least 15 days ahead of time listing the time, date and location of the hearing.
Ultimately, it will still be up to the Department of Corrections to decide whether to place its new facility there.
Carter said she does not know whether it would have made any difference in the siting of the reentry facility had her legislation been in place last year. But she said at least the neighbors would have been on notice and been given a chance to air their views.
The idea for the facility came from Ducey in his 2016 State of the State address. The department had been asking for the facility since 2012 in its annual budget request to the governor.
Under Arizona law, offenders are released after serving 85 percent of their sentence. But they remain under “community supervision” for the balance of their term.
What happens sometimes is a former inmate in that category fails a drug test or some other condition of release but have not committed any new crimes.
Andrew Wilder, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said that generally has left his agency two choices: Ignore the violation or put the person back behind bars. But he said that latter option makes little sense, as the person then loses his or her job and housing.
And then there’s the simple fact that it costs money to imprison someone.
What this kind of facility does is provide what Wilder said could be called “an adult time-out,” with the former inmate perhaps forced to spend a few weekends locked up while also getting drug counseling. But these people are released during the week to keep their jobs.
The Department of Corrections actually has been operating one of these in Pima County for years. The result there, according to the governor’s staff, is that two thirds of those in the program complete it and don’t go back behind bars where they add to the state’s prison overcrowding situation.
Ducey told lawmakers he wanted the funding to have one of these in Maricopa County where about two-thirds of the prisoners are released.
“Let’s give them a second chance so they stay clean and never end up back in prison,” he said.
Carter said she’s all in favor of such facilities. But she also wants to be sure that the people who are nearby have been brought in.
“It’s community supervision,” she said. “So it’s really important for the community to be on board with what is happening.”