Arizona Capitol

One Bill Shows Why Arizona Hasn’t Passed Any Criminal Justice Reform This Year

State Representative Walter Blackman
State Representative Walter Blackman Gage Skidmore
Arizona lawmakers have killed nearly every criminal justice reform bill filed during the 2019 legislative session. Many died without ever getting a hearing.

There was a bill that would’ve given judges more discretion on mandatory minimums. Dead on January 28 without a hearing.

There was another House bill to automatically designate some low-level felonies as misdemeanors. Dead in the Senate on March 3.

And there was a bill, sponsored by Republican State Representative Walter Blackman, to give prisoners more earned release credit, bringing Arizona’s strict sentencing policies closer in line with the rest of the country. Dead on January 24 without a hearing.

One sentencing bill, however, lives on and sheds light on why most bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts can't make headway in the legislature. Ostensibly a criminal justice reform effort, the bill sits at a flashpoint between hardline prosecutors and criminal justice advocates, Democrats and Republicans, who say it doesn't go far enough.

SB 1310, sponsored by Republican State Senator Eddie Farnsworth, is a much less expansive version of Blackman's bill. Farnsworth's bill would allow some nonviolent drug offenders to get out of prison earlier if they enroll in treatment or other approved “self-improvement” programs, and serve a minimum of 70 percent of their sentence.

On the surface, the bill seems uncontroversial — a modest step toward reducing the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the United States.

But in Arizona, advocates cast the bill as a cynical attempt to give off the appearance of reform without actually making a significant reduction in the state’s prison population.

"The problem with this bill is it is quintessential smoke and mirrors,” said Democratic State Representative Kirsten Engel on the House floor Thursday. "We are purporting to offer something to prisoners, a shorter sentence in return for good behavior in prison, and yet, we’re not delivering.”

click to enlarge State Representative Walter Blackman - GAGE SKIDMORE
State Representative Walter Blackman
Gage Skidmore
Engel also noted that the Department of Corrections does not currently have the capacity to put all eligible drug offenders in treatment.

Although SB 1310 was debated on the House floor on Thursday, Republicans did not bring it up for a vote, suggesting that they didn't yet have the slim 30-vote majority they need to pass legislation.

Republican State Representative David Cook said on the floor that day he still hadn't made up his mind on the bill. "I haven’t got the facts I would like," he said. And one day before, Blackman said he would not support the bill in its current form, emphasizing Arizona's high incarceration rate and saying "we really have to do some deep-diving."

"It seems like this is a Band-Aid effect," Blackman told his Republican colleagues during a caucus meeting. "I am hoping to see that we do come to some real prison reform."

Blackman's current opposition to SB 1310 highlights the unique dynamic in Arizona's legislature. Republicans and Democrats in the state support an array of criminal justice reform bills, but two powerful judiciary chairmen (Senator Farnsworth and Representative John Allen) have blocked most of them from getting anywhere. Advocates blame Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery. The prosecutor's shadow looms over the Capitol so starkly that House Speaker Rusty Bowers recently likened the legislature's relationship with Montgomery to a "marriage."

Montgomery's office supports SB 1310. The county attorney declined to comment for this article.

Prison reform organizations opposing the bill — including the American Friends Services Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union, and — all backed Blackman's earned release credit bill, which would've applied to many more inmates than the bill sponsored by Farnsworth.

Arizona remains one of three states (the others being Florida and Virginia) that have "truth-in-sentencing" laws, requiring prisoners to serve a minimum of 85 percent of their sentence before getting paroled. Most other states have done away with the laws over time since they adopted stiff sentencing policies in response to President Bill Clinton's 1994 crime bill.

Blackman's bill would've made many prisoners (not just nonviolent drug offenders) eligible for additional earned release credit, equivalent to one day for each day served. Inmates convicted of dangerous offenses (crimes involving a deadly weapon or serious bodily injury) would get one day for every three days served. People convicted of crimes against children would not have been eligible.

According to an analysis by the prison reform organization, the bill would've reduced Arizona's prison population by 8,300 beds by 2028, bringing the state down from the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the United States to the 11th.

Farnsworth's bill, meanwhile, would result in a relatively low reduction in prisoners while requiring officials to collect data on recidivism.

Republican lawmakers supporting the bill — including Representatives Bret Roberts and Allen — noted on Thursday that 80 current Arizona inmates would fit the criteria for immediate release under the bill. Those inmates, however, would only be eligible for release if lawmakers passed an amendment making the bill retroactive. No such amendment has passed.

Because the bill still has not come up for a roll call vote, House Republicans still have the option to bring it up on the floor.
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Steven Hsieh was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from August 2018 to April 2020.
Contact: Steven Hsieh