PHOENIX — Saying the current system is unsustainable, a first-term lawmaker took the initial steps Monday to what he hopes will reform the state prison system.
And Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, said he’s prepared to take on prosecutors if it comes to that.
Blackman said Monday that Arizona incarcerates a higher percentage of its residents than all but three other states.
At the same time, he said, incarceration costs Arizona taxpayers $1.2 billion a year, one dollar out of every 10 being spent to run the state. And one out of every three inmates discharged returns to custody within three years.
Blackman is focusing at least initially on changing the system of earned release credits in a way that would allow inmates to get out early if they complete certain programs designed to give them the skills they need on the outside and prevent them from reoffending.
“We need to create new incentives and real programming for our inmates so they can have success when they leave our corrections facilities,” he said. To that end, Blackman convinced House Speaker Rusty Bowers to form — and let him chair — a special panel to look at earned released credits and craft something for the full Legislature to consider this coming year.
That panel had its first meeting Monday, hearing from the Department of Corrections, some prison reform advocates and a retired judge who provided some data on incarceration rates.
But Blackman acknowledged that at some point it will be necessary to look at the front end of the system — people being sent to prison — to deal with how Arizona ended up with more than 42,000 people behind bars in state and private facilities.
That could put him into conflict with at least some prosecutors, notably Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery who has been at the forefront of killing prior measures aimed altering laws on mandatory sentencing and minimum prison terms.
But Montgomery told Capitol Media Services that his opposition to some proposals has been based on his belief that they simply sought to cut sentences without first seeing what actually will work to keep people from ending up back behind bars.
“We need to identify the successful programming,” he said.
“Then we can take a look at how long do we have to provide that programming to have the impact we’re looking for and what types of programs are the most successful,” Montgomery said. “And where the data goes, I’m more than willing to follow.”
Blackman, who scheduled a private meeting with Montgomery following Monday’s meeting, said he’s not going to be deterred from trying to get something through, saying the residents of his northeast Arizona legislative district want prison reform.
“I do not need Mr. Montgomery’s permission to do what I’m going to do,” he said.
“He may have powers behind the curtain to do whatever he does,” Blackman continued. “I don’t know.”
Montgomery countered that he does everything in the open, using “objective data” in urging lawmakers to approve or kill any measure.
At the heart of the issue are Arizona’s “truth in sentencing” laws enacted in 1993, requiring inmates to serve at least 85% of their sentence before they are eligible for release. That effectively put sharp limits on the ability of those behind bars to earn early release credits for completing certain programs.
Arizona has taken only baby steps in reducing its prison population.
The state has set up two “reentry centers” to deal with newly released inmates who commit minor infractions of their release conditions, providing them services rather than sending them back to prison.
And last year lawmakers agreed to allow some people convicted of simple possession of drugs to be eligible for release after serving 70% of their sentences if they complete drug treatment or other programs.
Blackman said more flexibility is needed in the laws.
“We need justice systems that have a different response for different situations,” he said.
“That means shifting gears to treatment, to prevention, to enhanced transition programs and long-term public safety solutions,” Blackman said. “The time has come for common-sense prison reform.”
Possible opposition from prosecutors may be just part of the problem. Blackman first needs to convince members of his special committee.
That includes Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, who comes to the job with the perspective of having been a jail corrections officer in Maricopa County.
“When it comes to this kind of stuff I’m extremely apprehensive about overstepping,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in being incrementally responsible in any steps we take.”
Still, Roberts said he believes there are some areas worthy of review, including drug rehabilitation. And he’s willing to look at changes in law for those convicted of nonviolent crimes.
Roberts said that, if nothing else, inmates need programs to help those who have been in prison reenter society.
“Every single decision has been made for them, from when they get to take a shower, when they get to eat, every step of the day,” he said.
“And then one day, all of a sudden, they’re out in public and no decisions are made for them,” Roberts said. “And there’s no resources.”
That identifies the other key issue: money.
Blackman said he’s not willing to hike taxes to pay for new programs. But he said that leaves the question of whether the money already being given to the Department of Corrections is being used wisely.
“We can continue to pump a billion dollars into a system,” Blackman said.
“But if we don’t fix the system, the billion dollars becomes two billion dollars and the population increases,” he said. “And the folks that get out are still returning back to prison, which is happening now.”
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