Gov. Doug Ducey has signed just one bill aimed at criminal justice reform after a legislative session in which 17 bills were introduced to attempt reform the system.
SB 1310 softens Arizona’s penalties for those accused and convicted of crimes by allowing drug offenders to earn time off their sentences.
Under the new law, inmates convicted of possession of drugs or paraphernalia and who have never been convicted of a violent offense will be eligible to earn three days off their sentence for every seven days served.
To qualify, inmates are required to complete a drug rehabilitation program through the Arizona Department of Corrections — a requirement that has made the bill somewhat controversial among advocacy groups, particularly the ACLU of Arizona, who argue that few will actually be eligible for time off their sentences under SB 1310.
This is for two main reasons, according to Jared Keenan, a criminal justice staff attorney for the ACLU of Arizona.
For one, the number of drug- rehabilitation programs available to Arizona inmates is small compared to the state’s large prison population.
According to data from the ADC from April 2019, 78% of inmates revealed histories of serious substance-abuse issues at intake. During April, 839 inmates in the state’s prison population, which numbered around 42,000, were in addiction-treatment programs.
“According to (the ADC’s) own numbers, the vast majority of people in their prisons are in high need or moderate need of substance abuse treatments,” Keenan said. “And the department simply just doesn’t have treatments available to provide to everybody.”
In addition, for many inmates, by the time they are able to enter one of the ADC’s drug treatment programs, they are already far along in their sentence, according to Keenan.
“The problem is that a lot of people have already reached that 70% (sentence served) mark, where they would be able to be released if they had access to and had completed a rehabilitation program, but they just haven’t,” Keenan said.
As a result, Keenan anticipates SB 1310 having a “small impact” on the prison population.
Another bill aimed at criminal justice reform, SB 1334, would have amended Arizona’s “repeat offender” rule. SB 1334 was passed by the Legislature, but ultimately vetoed by Ducey.
Currently in Arizona, prior incidents of criminal behavior could be grouped together at a person’s first trial to display a history of criminal behavior and label someone a repeat offender, which can carry a harsher sentence.
The version that ended up on the governor’s desk limited the use of this practice. Only people convicted of a prior felony offense would have been regarded as repeat offenders.
“Senate Bill 1334 was a small but important step forward for Arizona’s criminal justice system. ... We are deeply disappointed that Governor Doug Ducey vetoed this bill today,” senior state policy manager for FWD.us Emily Levett said in a statement. FWD.us is a bipartisan organization focused on immigration and criminal justice reform.
More comprehensive criminal justice reform bills did not advance within the Legislature enough to even be seen by the governor.
While the passage of SB 1310 represents a small victory for advocates for criminal justice reform, some worried lawmakers would use the bill as an excuse not to pass more comprehensive reform.
“Our concern is those that supported SB 1310 would attempt to use it as a way to sort of scuttle any further attempts at more meaningful reform because they could fall back and say, ‘Hey look we just did this reform, we don’t need to do anything else,’” Keenan said. “But I don’t think that message is resonating and I think there are people on both sides of the aisle that understand that meaningful criminal justice reform is absolutely necessary in Arizona.”