A recent article in the Arizona Capitol Times suggests that major criminal justice reform is just around the corner in Arizona. An example provided is that despite opposition from law enforcement and the county attorneys, civil forfeiture laws were modified during the 2017 session.
Most of the same organizations mentioned in the article (American Friends Service Committee/Tucson, ACLU of Arizona, and Right on Crime) and other organizations not mentioned (Salvation Army, David’s Hope, etc.) either sponsored or signed on to support SB1067 and SB1068 in the 2017 legislative session.
SB1067 proposed a star chamber-like process whereby a released person – no longer a prisoner — could be taken into custody for up to 5 days in jail without the due process protections of an open public hearing and without opportunity to retain a lawyer. The bill proposed that the Board of Executive Clemency participate in some of these due process violations without ever vetting the bill with the board. The lobbyist representing AFSC stated during a committee hearing that the bill’s language was reflective of “best practice” proposals from other states and supported in academic studies. Clearly, it isn’t sufficient to attempt to apply academic approaches without taking into account the legal and practical applications of such polices. Moreover, it is dangerous and foolhardy to be so desperate to obtain change for the sake of change without understanding the full impact of one’s proposals.
SB1068 proposed reductions in sentences for some low-level offenders, but the math proposed in the bill was incorrect when applied to calculating earned release credits for prisoners and when applying the formula for community supervision time under Arizona’s current criminal code. This demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of the basics of the sentencing code for our state. Even after the math errors were pointed out and the bill was amended, the supporting group still tried to include all repeat offenders into the cohort of prisoners who would benefit from reduced sentences no matter how many previous offenses in their record. And no matter how serious the previous offenses were. Logically, once a person becomes a repeat offender, especially multiple times, that person can no longer be considered “low risk” to reoffend, which was the alleged underlying premise for supporting the bill in the first place.
There is no doubt that criminal justice and sentencing reform is needed in Arizona. But it is also important that the people or groups making proposals for change understand exactly what they are proposing, what the full impact of those changes would be on all stakeholders, and that in the rush to achieve results and re-apply for grant monies to support their work, that they do no harm. Do-gooders sometimes don’t “do good.”
— Donna Leone Hamm is director of Middle Ground Prison Reform.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.