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Prisoners need programs for success after release

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I was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives on a promise that I would fight for individual liberty and hold those who break our laws accountable, and my fight to reform Arizona’s criminal justice system is consistent with those principles.

Any criminal justice reform legislation I introduce will ensure that victims of crimes are protected, our communities are kept safe, and additional costs are not forced upon taxpayers.

Walt Blackman

Walt Blackman

As chair of the House Ad Hoc Committee on Earned Release Credits, I will search for realistic ways to reform our earned release credit system for nonviolent offenders that will allow inmates to earn their way home from prison if they participate in evidence-based programs that will reduce the likelihood that they return to prison.

By gathering information from stakeholders, the committee will look for ways to improve our prison system and complete a review of the prison environment, existing programs to earn release credits, and current prison resources.

By applying best practices from around the country that have undergone prison reform with positive results, Arizona can provide opportunities for people in prison to turn their lives around. Our state is one of only three that makes its inmates serve     85 percent or more of their sentence, even if they maintain good behavior and participate in programs that reduce their risk to commit new crimes.

Research has shown that providing inmates with an incentive to develop job and parenting skills and treat substance abuse or mental health issues dramatically improves their chances of success upon release. As a person of strong faith, I believe that everyone deserves a chance at redemption and we should be doing more than just warehousing people in prison.

Arizona’s prison sentences are some of the longest in the country, and we have ample opportunity to focus more on rehabilitation and less on punishment while also maintaining accountability for inmates and safety to prison staff.

Our current policies are failing to make us safer at great cost to taxpayers, to the tune of over $25,000 a year per inmate. Between 2000 and 2016, Arizona’s imprisonment rate increased by 20 percent. At the same time, the national rate declined by 7 percent.

Arizona’s imprisonment crisis removes thousands of people from the economy and costs taxpayers more than $1 billion each year, which prevents the state from investing in other critical priorities like education and social services for victims.

If true reform is not implemented in the state, Arizona’s prison population will continue to outpace the prison growth of the rest of the country. Our state has the fourth highest imprisonment rate in the nation, meaning that we put more of our residents in prison per capita than any other state except for Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

While 32 states have reduced both crime and imprisonment rates over the past decade, Arizona is sadly not one of these states. As a conservative legislator, I don’t mind investing in government programs that work. Unfortunately, that has not been the case with our prisons. One out of every three inmates leaving Arizona’s prisons returns to custody within three years. We need a justice system that has different responses for different situations – treatment, prevention, and enhanced transition programs are needed.

I will develop legislation that mirrors policies in the federal First Step Act, which was passed by Republican majorities in Congress last year and signed by President Trump, who said that “America is a nation that believes in the power of redemption.” In his State of the Union, the president called upon states to follow his lead in passing criminal justice reform legislation. By implementing similar reforms at the state level, we can improve public safety, save taxpayer dollars, and better prepare formerly incarcerated Arizonans to work, contribute to society, and support their families.

We need to create incentives and effective programs to prepare inmates not only for release but success after prison. The time has come for commonsense prison reform.

— Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, represents Legislative District 6 in the Arizona House.

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