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Prison reform bills save money, maintain safety

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.

Walt Blackman

Walt Blackman

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.

4 comments

  1. The proposed oversight committee has only 1 union Rep for employees, and it is a non-voting member. Just exactly how many staff will bring concerns to a well-stacked committee that has no voting voice for them? Meanwhile. the proposed committee can only make recommendations to legislators; it has no regulatory teeth . The Auditor General, on the other hand, is professionally staffed, independent, unbiased and already funded ageny that can conduct performance audits on any task or function of the ADCRR, including audit of time computation mistakes, results of grievances, etc. And MOST IMPORTANTLY, the Auditor General does have the authority to require correction of identified problems and issues for staff, inmates and visitors. In other words, the AG has regulatory powers. And they wouldn’t need a $20 million dollar budget to perform this work since they already exist with professionally trained auditors. Legislators need to fund evidence based rehabilitation and reentry programs with our tax dollars at the same time they approve additional earned release credits for non dangerous offenders. Yes on 2713: no on 2167.

  2. Rep. Blackman,
    Thank you for such an accurate, concise review of the major problems with the dismal failures of the Arizona prison system.As the parent of someone who entered “the system” as a 20 year old with an alcohol and marijuana problem, I watch helplessly as the revolving door continues to pull him back in as a 33 year old with problems he has been GIVEN by the system. He has become bitter, angry, depressed and hopeless during the relentless cycle of incarceration, probation, life with the 800 consequences of a felony conviction in Arizona and then ..re-arrest. Our system and it’s lack of staffing and inadequate focus on rehabilitation and treatment returns sick and angry people back to their communities! Thank you for your efforts!

  3. HB2167, from the beginning, showed its true colors: A $20 MILLION TAX PAID COMMITTEE TO BASH ADCRR.

    Initially, the Bill placed a single ADCRR labor organization on the Committee, having no board vote as stated before. The other members, besides maybe the Legislative members, are so slanted ANTI-ADCRR it is STUNNING. And even with the recent changes to the Bill, it is still slanted ANTI-ADCRR. The Bill keeps out victims of crimes and any other pro-law enforcement persons from becoming board members. Nothing like “fair and balanced.”

    Besides the recommendations made by others, the FRATERNAL ORDER OF POLICE, LODGE 44 FOR CORRECTIONS (FOP), from the start, has been a strong opponent of HB2167.

    As a Labor Organization representing ADCRR members, FOP finds the language in the Bill appalling. To provide a token position for Labor with no vote seems to be nothing more than creating a “DARTBOARD” position for the other members to throw darts at.

    FOP recommends that HB2167 be modeled after another Corrections-related Board in Arizona, the BOARD OF EXECUTIVE CLEMENCY (Parole Board), with a balanced community make-up.

    To create a COMMITTEE that is so obviously anti-ADCRR would only create a product that would not be taken seriously by most and fail at the attempt to bring transparency to any correctional issue.

    The FOP recommends that the Bill not be allowed to move forward and then invite stake-holders to work together over the summer to create a Bill that both sides can support.

  4. Randall Dressig

    I agree I have a loved one in florence and his co3 told him that hes gunna get out in July of 22 or earlier and has him all excited and he keeps telling me to find out and I’ve tried to no end. Please hes such a good person and it’s like that are toying with people’s emotions and tearing them down when nothing is happening. Please a million times help the good people who made a mistake and just need something to work for.

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