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Lawmakers prepare criminal justice bills for 2020 session 

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Bills designed to send fewer people to prison, provide rehabilitation opportunities for incarcerated people and help those who’ve served their time reintegrate into society will be back on the Arizona Legislature’s table next year.

After watching several criminal justice bills die last session because of statutory deadlines, unfavorable perception and post-session vetoes, lawmakers are gearing up for a new fight.

Walt Blackman

Walt Blackman

Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, plans to introduce a slate of bills, including a measure to let prisoners earn early release, one that would repay student loans for mental health professionals who work in state correctional facilities and one calling for a full audit of the Arizona Department of Corrections. They’re all part of a comprehensive look at the state’s criminal justice system, he said.

“The comprehensive kind of criminal justice reform that I am working on, it’s not something that’s going to be solved in one session,” Blackman said. “I’m not talking incremental, I’m talking comprehensively we have to look at the whole system. One bill is not going to solve the problems of what’s going on inside the prison system.”

Early release

Blackman is leading an ad hoc committee this fall based on his unsuccessful 2019 HB 2270, which would have allowed prisoners to earn time off their sentences for good behavior. By the time the committee wraps up its work in November, he hopes members will rally around a new bill that would let prisoners earn early release by completing programs aimed to keep them from reoffending.

The state now lets well-behaved prisoners earn one day off their sentences for every six served. A law signed this year allows some nonviolent drug offenders to earn three days off for every seven served, but only if they complete drug treatment programs that aren’t currently available to every eligible prisoner.

Blackman stressed that just letting some of the state’s roughly 42,000 prisoners out early isn’t enough.

“I can write an earned-release credit bill, and it can be a beautiful bill,” he said. “Say it lets out 6,300 folks. If I don’t have the systems in place to support those 6,300 inmates getting out, then that bill is going to fail.”

Student loans

One barrier to rehabilitation in prisons is a shortage of trained mental health professionals who can help inmates address underlying mental health issues that may have led to committing crimes. Without adequate staffs of psychologists, counselors and clinical social workers, state prisons wouldn’t be able to implement rehabilitative programs that would let prisoners earn early release under Blackman’s other proposed bill.

Another bill he plans to introduce would repay student loans for psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, counselors and therapists who spend at least five years working for the Department of Corrections. As state workers, those employees could already qualify for the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program if they remain in their roles for 10 years and make all of their loan payments during those 10 years.

Audits and transparency

Blackman is also calling for a full audit of the Department of Corrections and its budget, to find areas where the state can re-appropriate costs from the department’s $1 billion budget to programs that could be more effective.

“Right now we’re paying $1 billion into DOC and the outcome has not gotten any better,” he said. “We can continue going down a rabbit hole of paying more money into a system that we call corrections but is not really corrections, it’s more housing.”

Any cost savings from DOC should be reinvested into continued programming and education for people in the justice system to improve their options for reintegrating into society, Blackman said.

Sealing records

Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, had an expungement bill die without a hearing in part because of the bad perception surrounding former Rep. David Stringer’s resignation, which came after an expunged police record that charged the disgraced lawmaker with soliciting and molesting young disabled boys resurfaced.

Ben Toma

Ben Toma

Toma said he still hopes to address the stigma and barriers faced by felons being released from prison, by sealing records instead of expunging them. While he hasn’t finished drafting the bill yet, he’s looking at Pennsylvania’s new Clean Slate law as a model.

That law, which took effect in July, automatically seals millions of criminal records held by people who were criminally charged but not convicted, committed nonviolent crimes 10 or more years ago or committed misdemeanors that resulted in fewer than two years in prison. Law enforcement agencies can still see sealed records, but the records won’t show up on background checks used by landlords or most employers.

“From a business perspective, it doesn’t make sense to have people stigmatized forever,” Toma said.

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