A 2020 legislative effort to expand early release opportunities for prisoners kicked off Monday morning with exhortations from advocates to think beyond incremental steps and warnings from the Arizona Department of Corrections that it doesn’t have the budget or staff to handle big changes.
Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, was stymied in his attempts to pass legislation this session that would allow prisoners to earn more time off for good behavior. While his HB 2270 didn’t rate a committee hearing, he’s now leading an interim committee working on new legislation to give prisoners the ability to earn time off their sentences by completing programs aimed to keep them from reoffending.
“When a person comes into the system and becomes an inmate, they are our responsibility then,” Blackman said. “We have to make sure we are giving folks tools to succeed.”
Other states give prisoners two ways to earn time off their sentences, said Lauren Krisai, a senior analyst with the national Justice Action Network. They can earn “good time” for behaving and avoiding disciplinary actions and “earned time” for participating in programs like GED classes or anger management that are designed to help returning prisoners integrate into society.
“If you follow the rules, than you can get good time credits,” Krisai said. “For earned time, you have to do something proactively”
Arizona offers only good time, at a rate of one day for every six days served. Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill earlier this year that will allow some nonviolent drug offenders who have completed drug treatment programs to qualify for three days off for every seven served.
However, the Arizona Department of Corrections does not employ enough counselors or officers to provide the drug treatment programs required to earn additional time off sentences required by that new law, said Karen Hellman, the department’s division director for inmate programs and reentry.
She said it was “safe to say” the rehabilitation programs, which make up somewhere between 2% and 12% of the department’s $1.2 billion budget, would need more staff to implement any large-scale efforts to expand earned release programs.
“We do not have the capacity to treat everyone who needs it,” Hellman said.
Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, said he wanted to see more information about the costs of implementing changes to the state’s earned-release programs. Blackman said he plans to ask Krisai and her colleagues at the Justice Action Network to model costs for Arizona.
While implementing new programs would likely have an initial cost, Krisai said states realize savings over time. She said Republican-led states including Oklahoma, Tennessee and Kansas have changed their sentencing laws to reduce time spent in prison without negative consequences.
“When you allow inmates to earn additional credits, that means they’re getting out earlier,” Krisai said. “That’s fewer dollars that are being spent on the prison or the prison bed that person was taking up.”
And providing treatment for inmates with early release as an incentive boosts morale in prisons, she said. Instead of waiting around to be released, they’re actively working on rehabilitation.
Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said he sees a need for incentives in the prison system. The corrections system is supposed to serve as a consequence to people who commit crimes, he said, but it also needs to work on rehabilitating inmates.
“We’re pretty good at the punishment part of it, perhaps a little too good,” Toma said. “We’re pretty good at the stick thing. Not too much about the carrots.”
Legislative efforts to change criminal justice laws repeatedly stall at the Capitol, where criminal justice advocates say prosecutors carry an outsize influence on lawmakers in the Republican majority. Blackman said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery declined an invitation to speak publicly to his committee Monday morning, but instead planned to meet privately with Blackman later in the day.
Montgomery is one of several finalists for a vacant Supreme Court seat, and Blackman said he’s spoken with several people interested in serving as county attorney should Montgomery be appointed to the Supreme Court who are interested in pursuing changes to sentencing laws.
“I do not need Mr. Montgomery’s permission to do what I plan to do,” he said.
Caroline Isaacs, Tucson program director of the American Friends Service Committee, implored lawmakers to choose the path forward that will help the most people and make it politically feasible, rather than taking incremental steps just to say they’ve gotten something done.
“We have done incremental,” Isaacs said. “We have continued to do incremental, but there’s no question it is incumbent on us to do the most bold and wide-reaching reform that we can.”