This legislative session, Republican lawmakers are following in the footsteps of President Donald Trump and addressing the need for sentencing reform in Arizona. So far, the bills that have gained momentum in the House and Senate are well-intentioned but too weak to put a dent in our massive prison population.
Arizona taxpayers are spending $1.1 billion a year to incarcerate nearly 42,000 people. As of last month, more than 50 percent of people incarcerated had served a prison term in Arizona before, according to state records.
I am the founder of Arizona Advocates for Ex-Offenders, a nonprofit organization that helps people overcome the many obstacles they face when transitioning back into society. I started this organization because I have been in their shoes. I know how difficult it can be to find stable housing and employment even years after release.
I also know that long prison sentences are ineffective. The longer a person spends in prison, the more embedded they become in a punitive culture filled with violence and lacking hope. It is difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, stay positive, and motivate oneself to be better when there is little opportunity to earn time off a sentence.
Arizona is one of a handful of states that still requires all people sent to prison to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. The 85 percent requirement was implemented in states across the country in the early-1990s.
Over the years, other states have reversed this policy, including Mississippi, which did so after its incarceration crisis hit unsustainable levels. Now Arizona too is watching its prison population become unsustainable.
This year, there is proposed legislation that takes aim at the problematic 85 percent requirement, but two of these bills will unfortunately have very little impact.
SB 1310, sponsored by Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, only applies to people charged with certain drug crimes. Nearly 80 percent of people in Arizona prisons have significant substance abuse histories, according to the Department of Corrections. Some of these people have not been charged with drug crimes. Even so, their convictions are clearly related to their substance abuse problems. They too should be given an incentive to participate in drug treatment programs by being offered a chance to earn an earlier release date.
HB 2661, sponsored by Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, would allow certain people to be eligible for an earlier release date after serving out 70 percent of their sentence instead of 85 percent. This means no matter how many educational or rehabilitative programs people participate in, the amount of early release credits they can earn will still be severely limited. In comparison, Mississippi requires people with nonviolent convictions to serve at least 25 percent of their sentence and people with violent convictions to serve at least 50 percent of their sentence.
A recent report from FWD.us found that people in Arizona prisons are already serving significantly longer sentences than they would in other states for the same crimes, particularly for property crimes.
FWD.us completed another analysis showing that one earned release credit bill, HB 2270, would have a meaningful effect for Arizona. Arizona now has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the nation. If HB 2270 became law, Arizona would rank 11th. Unfortunately, Rep. Allen, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, refused to give HB 2270 a hearing.
I am fortunate to sit on Gov. Ducey’s re-entry advisory council. I know this is an issue the governor cares about. He has taken steps to expand Second Chance Centers, which are designed to give people the tools they need to find work after their release.
This session, I’d like to see all lawmakers approach criminal justice reform with that same “second chance” mentality, which is founded on the belief that all people can transform for the better. Almost everyone in our prisons will once again come home to be our friends, neighbors and coworkers and we should care for them as such.
I ask Arizona lawmakers to be bold. Be courageous. Follow the lead of the federal government and other states that have seen tremendous success after implementing meaningful sentencing reforms. Demand more out of the proposed legislation this session and make 2019 the year we start down the path to substantial criminal justice reform for our state and substantial second chances for our people.
David Sheppard is a leader of Arizona Advocates for Ex-Offenders. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.