By some accounts, 2021 is shaping up to be: “The year of criminal justice reform.”
Bills are advancing through initial committees with much bipartisan support, including those to improve diversion programs, drug treatment for addicts, re-entry preparation and transition, flexibility for judges to depart from mandatory minimums, reinstating home arrest, expungement of criminal records, and sentencing reforms that would allow some drug offenders to be released at 50% of an imposed sentence, while allowing other non-dangerous offenders to be released after serving 2/3 of their sentence. This bill requires that an offender take only one self-improvement program which doesn’t even have to be targeted at the committing offense behavior.
Among this list of bills is one that carries a $20 million price tag spread over 10 years until sunset. It proposes an independent correctional oversight committee combined with an ombudsman, and includes a little mini-Library of Congress of reports on housing, employee attrition, inmate grievances, discipline, medical care, sexual assaults and more. Most of these statistics are already maintained, if not reported to the public, by the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry. The bill requires periodic inspection of prisons and a rating system imposed by the committee. In the bill, the ombudsman, staff, volunteers and others would have unfettered access to any prison in Arizona, unannounced. Thankfully, in order to avoid serious security concerns the sponsor agreed to our amendment, which excludes people in these positions who have family members incarcerated at the time of service on such a committee.
The conventional purpose of an ombudsman is to provide a neutral and unbiased investigator to resolve complaints about the actions of government agencies. An oversight committee – by definition – is to oversee the operations of a group or agency that is already suspect in its need for monitoring. The two positions seem to be incongruous, however, because the required objectivity of the ombudsman is seemingly superseded by the work of oversight. Nonetheless, the bill, which combines both into one office, has moved from the House to the Senate.
For $20 million dollars spread over 10 years, we firmly believe the prudent and credible solution is for legislators to hire an expert in correctional management, similar to the expert retained by the U.S. District Court in the medical lawsuit which has been ongoing against the correction department since 2015. This expert has performed a valuable function to the court in reporting on what is actually happening regarding medical care to prisoners, and he has done so with credibility and without bias; something that will be truly missing in HB2167 if adopted and signed into law. We strongly suspect that for far less than $20 million, all of the tasks outlined in the oversight/ombudsman bill could be achieved by professionals who don’t have skin in the game, as is clearly written into HB2167.
Does the corrections department require more accountability to taxpayers, more transparency and more professionalism? Yes; no question. Therefore, HB2167 is a laudable idea whose goals are poorly executed in the bill. It should go back to the drawing board.
Donna Leone Hamm is director of Middle Ground Prison Reform.