Gov. Doug Ducey wants to expand employment centers for soon-to-be-released prisoners and give them identification cards before they leave state custody.
For those who advocate for changes to the state’s criminal justice system, his proposals were good first steps that hopefully spur more comprehensive, long-term alterations.
The governor announced his plan during his January 8 State of the State address, the latest step from his office designed to reduce recidivism and provide a “second chance” for people leaving prison.
“If someone has served their time, and paid their debt, and is lawfully released from prison after years, the last thing we want is for them to find themselves back in trouble with the law, and back behind bars, and our policy can play a role,” he said.
It’s a contrast from where the governor, now in the fourth and final year of his term, stood in 2015. In that year’s budget proposal, Ducey called for 3,000 more beds in private prisons.
The state has seen the largest drop in its prison inmate population since 1974, the governor claimed. He wants the decline to continue.
For too many years, the state put money into prisons instead of investing in K-12 education, Ducey said.
Having the highest-ranking elected official in Arizona behind criminal justice reforms carries significant weight, said Caroline Isaacs, director of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group focused on changing criminal justice policies.
“Leadership at that level is priceless. It’s exactly what we need,” she said.
His policy proposals and changes so far – like efforts to help prisoners find jobs, banning the box asking about criminal history for state jobs and letting drug felons get food stamps – have mostly been safe, Isaacs said. To really tackle the myriad problems in the criminal justice system, it will take a long-term vision and political will, she said.
“Politics are politics. It’s not a feel good soundbite. It’s very complicated stuff,” she said.
Still, having Ducey involved has made Republican lawmakers more receptive to the criminal justice changes than they were a few years ago, Isaacs said.
His policies thus far have focused on the back-end of the criminal justice system instead of changes to sentencing laws that land people in prison in the first place. Arizona has one of the country’s highest imprisonment rates, and the Arizona Department of Corrections eats up about 10 percent of the state’s budget.
Ducey told the Arizona Capitol Times he sees his job as enforcing the laws on the books. Right now, he said, there are more than 41,000 people in Arizona prisons, and most of them will not be there for life, so it’s important to find ways to help them re-enter society.
“If we want to talk about different reforms around our sentencing guidelines, that’s a totally different subject. But my number one issue every day when I wake up is public safety, and I do think we live in a safe state. I want to see it continue to be safe,” he said.
A discussion about sentencing reform would be “worthwhile” and he’s “open-minded” to the issue, he added.
Ducey’s heading in the right direction on criminal justice issues, said Alessandra Soler, director of the Arizona branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. The prison system in Arizona is vast and costly, she said.
“It’s going to require equally audacious, ambitious goals to fix it,” Soler said.
Ducey is starting where he’s comfortable, on finding second chance policies, she said. And, she added, there’s now bipartisan support for such measures, pointing to a 2017 poll from the right-wing Charles Koch Institute that showed President Trump voters were amenable to criminal justice reform.
“The fact that he’s even open to having this conversation is positive,” Soler said.
Kurt Altman, Arizona director of conservative group Right on Crime, said Ducey’s speech included some great first steps. And any steps forward are much better than nothing or sliding backward, he said.
The Corrections Department is essentially putting out a product, and there are a lot of ways to make that product better and more cost-effective, Altman said. Changing the criminal justice system is a process with a lot of work, and it seems like Ducey is open to realistic and fiscally responsible changes, Altman said.