prison bars

A new poll shows strong bipartisan support for criminal justice reform by Arizona voters, but state lawmakers might not be getting the message.

At least eight bills were introduced to the House and Senate for the 2019 legislative session, but several have been denied hearings in committee and won’t advance to a vote this year.

FWD.us, a bipartisan political lobbying group, polled 800 registered voters in Arizona and found that 56 percent thought the criminal justice system needs significant improvements.

Eight out of 10 people said that it was important to “reduce the number of people in jail or prison” and 88 percent of those polled supported allowing most people sentenced to prison to earn an additional 25 percent off their time for good behavior and participation in rehabilitation programs, according to the poll.

Three-quarters of people polled supported removing convictions from a person’s record after they’ve completed the terms of their sentence and have remained crime-free for a period of time.

Sixty-four percent of those polled supported punishing people convicted of drug possession with a misdemeanor sentence rather than a felony, with a punishment of up to one year in jail.

Several bills introduced into the legislature this session would have addressed many of those concerns, including House Bill 2270, which would have reduced Arizona’s requirement that inmates serve 85 percent of their sentence and allowed them to earn up to 50 percent off their sentence.

HB 2270 was assigned to be heard by the House Judiciary and Public Safety committees, but failed to receive hearings in either committee before the Feb. 22 deadline, effectively killing the bill.

On Feb. 20, representatives from Tucson nonprofit American Friends Service Committee-Arizona and the ACLU traveled to Phoenix to thank Rep. John Allen for sponsoring HB 2261 — a separate bill addressing earned release credits for prisoners — and express concerns about the bill’s limited scope.

Several hours into the House Judiciary Committee hearing, Allen pulled the bill from the agenda, disallowing a vote. Following objections by a reform advocate in attendance, Allen agreed to allow people to testify about sentencing reform, but still refused to put HB 2261 up for a vote, according to AFSC-AZ.

Allen referenced a pending Senate bill as an alternative to HB 2261 and mentioned the need for a stakeholder meeting when a similar Senate bill comes to the House to be voted on.

That bill, SB 1310, was just passed in the Senate and increases earned release credit opportunity to three days for every seven days served for people sentenced for possession of drugs or paraphernalia. The credit applies if the person successfully completes a drug treatment program provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections during their prison term and has not previously been convicted of a violent and aggravated felony.

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Three other bills that would have addressed criminal justice reform — HB 2362, HB 2148 and HB 2245 — also failed to receive hearings and will not advance this session.

Republican Rep. Walt Blackman, the Snowflake legislator who sponsored HB 2270, appeared on a panel with AFSC-AZ director Caroline Isaacs earlier this week, saying he’s working to meet with stakeholders about expanding SB 1310. During the event, Blackman alluded to the possibility that he might become a committee chair in 2020, opening the door for potential reform, according to a news release from AFSC-AZ.

In addition to SB 1310, there are two House bills that still have a chance to be voted on this session.

HB 2424 would automatically designate Class 6 undesignated felonies as Class 1 misdemeanors and only classify the offense as a felony if the person fails to complete his or her programming requirements.

HB 2361 addresses sentencing for repeat offenders and would repeal what AFSC-AZ calls a “problematic aspect” of the sentencing enhancement. The repeal would prevent those people who have not previously been convicted of a felony from being charged as a repeat offender.

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I'm a watchdog reporter covering local government, the University of Arizona and sports investigations.