As a strong conservative Republican, I understand that Arizona’s Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry (ADCRR) is a government agency warranting just as much scrutiny as any other. Our prison system costs taxpayers $1.3 billion each year. Most of the 38,000 people in prison are going home some day, and they need to be rehabilitated so the public remains safe. It’s the Legislature’s job to make sure that dollars are being spent wisely on positive outcomes for those inside and outside of our prisons.
That’s why I am sponsoring two essential criminal justice reform bills this year. House Bill 2713 would save money and increase public safety by incentivizing rehabilitation for people convicted of nonviolent offenses.
The bill allows individuals to earn additional credits toward a release to community supervision if they complete rehabilitative programming or work programs. The second, House Bill 2167, would create independent prison oversight to ensure that ADCRR makes rehabilitative programs available and awards earned credits as the law requires.
Taking both of these issues seriously, I was incredibly disturbed to learn of a recent report that found that the ADCRR’s $24 million database can’t actually adjust sentences to reflect the limited number of credits people currently earn for completing programs.
This flaw potentially keeps people in prison longer than necessary and wastes taxpayer dollars. The ADCRR knew about the problem for more than a year and told staff not to report it — it took whistleblowers talking to the media to make us aware of the issue. This is what happens when government goes unchecked for too long. It begins to fail.
The issues with the database are just the latest in a long line of perturbing and expensive problems at ADCRR, namely broken locks on cells, a health care lawsuit that is costing the state millions, and escapes of serious offenders, just to list a few.
ADCRR’s history of failures shows that it is an agency that cannot be left to its own devices. Independent oversight would increase transparency and accountability in prisons, help lawmakers draft smart budgets, and make prisons safer and more productive places for both prisoners and the staff who work there.
Arizona is lagging in its efforts to rehabilitate people in prison. Right now, Arizona is only one of three states that require people convicted of nonviolent offenses to serve 85% of their sentences before they are eligible for release, with the exception of drug possession offenses.
People who cannot earn more than 15% in credits have to serve a set sentence no matter what they do behind bars. That isn’t right. That means someone who sits around and does nothing to better themselves will be released at the same time as someone who takes advantage of every program opportunity available to them. To me, we should be encouraging the latter and not incentivizing the former.
We know that expanding earned release credit opportunities works.
Numerous states allow individuals convicted of any offense (not just nonviolent ones) to earn their way home sooner than my bill would allow. For example, in Louisiana, everyone except those convicted of violent offenses or sentenced to life without parole may earn up to 50% toward an earlier release. In Mississippi, violent offenders are eligible for parole after serving 50%, while nonviolent offenders are eligible at 25%. My bill is modest in comparison, but an important step forward.
Arizona is behind other states in its limited use of earned time credits, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Arizona could become a leader in the country on prison oversight if it passes House Bill 2167. States like Washington, Texas, and Ohio have created successful independent oversight for their prisons and jails, and it makes positive change possible behind bars.
Holding people in prison past the date they can safely be released wastes taxpayer dollars and reduces public safety. When people decide to turn their lives around in prison, we should encourage that behavior – and make sure our prison system makes redemption achievable.
Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, represents Legislative District 6 in the Arizona House of Representatives.