By: Darrell Hill
The 2019 Legislative session started out promising for criminal justice reform advocates. Several bills had broad, bipartisan support as both Republicans and Democrats recognize the growing need to address Arizona’s incarceration crisis.
However, the only criminal justice bill that was able to gain any steam is not a reform bill at all, despite what some lawmakers would want you to believe.
SB 1310, sponsored by Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, passed out of the House Judiciary Committee and will be sent to the floor for a full vote. The ACLU of Arizona opposes SB 1310 because it is a faux attempt at reform.
SB 1310 was drafted with heavy coordination from Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery. Let’s make one thing clear: for years, Bill Montgomery has gone above and beyond to block substantial criminal justice reform at every turn. He is one of the main drivers of our incarceration crisis. Any lawmaker who truly wants to make significant change to our criminal justice system must listen to voices from impacted communities and criminal justice reform advocates, not just the state’s top incarcerator. But our concerns over SB 1310 go far beyond that.
SB 1310 would allow only people with drug possession convictions to earn early release credits, and only if they participate in drug rehabilitation or “major self-improvement” programs. SB 1310 excludes anyone convicted of a non-violent crime that is not related to the possession of drugs and who has a prior felony conviction that is considered dangerous or aggravated under the law.
This bill excludes thousands of hardworking people from having the opportunity to earn their way to an earlier release date or to be given an incentive to participate in drug rehabilitation.
During the hearing on SB 1310, Bill Montgomery’s legislative liaison told the committee that SB 1310 would theoretically apply to 1,893 people. We believe that number is grossly overestimated.
The Arizona Department of Corrections made it clear during today’s testimony that it does not have the resources to make the necessary programming available to all 1,893 people who would qualify for earned release credits under SB 1310. Indeed, less than 100 people, of the more than 40,000 people currently in Arizona prisons, have completed the necessary programming to be eligible to earn release credits. That is because space in ADC’s drug program is reserved for the most serious drug addiction problems and only provided to a few people in the last 6 to 12 months of their sentence.
Take Carmen Hreniuc’s son Tommy for instance. Carmen testified during today’s hearing that her son, who suffers from a substance abuse disorder, was convicted of a property crime, not a drug crime. He would be ineligible to earn early release credits under SB 1310 even though he could benefit from participation in drug rehabilitation programming.
Tommy has completed 15 programs offered by ADC in just a few months of his sentence. He still has six years to go. Someone like Tommy should not be spending years of their young life behind bars with no opportunity to prove they are ready to come home, especially when they would get that opportunity in many other states that are not as punitive as Arizona.
SB 1310 is not an incremental step, it is a delay tactic meant to prevent real reform and disrupt the growing bipartisan consensus demanding criminal justice reform. As Rep. Kirsten Engel, Rep. Walt Blackman and Rep. Diego Rodriguez all noted, the statutory scheme in SB 1310 will not provide lawmakers the necessary understanding to determine whether the ADC’s drug treatment programming reduces recidivism.
The reality is that Arizona has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the nation. People go to prison for longer periods of time in Arizona than they would in other states for the same exact crimes.
Arizona lawmakers had a real opportunity to pass sentencing reform that would have had a substantial impact on our incarceration rate. An analysis from Fwd.us found that HB 2270, introduced by Rep. Walt Blackman, would have brought Arizona down from the fourth highest incarceration rate to the eleventh. This is the kind of change we need, but Rep. John Allen, the chairman of the judiciary committee, refused to even give it a hearing.
During the testimony, Rep. Blackman pledged to vote no on SB 1310 if some of the concerns raised by criminal justice reform advocates are not addressed. Join us in emailing ([email protected]) or calling him (602-926-3043) to say thank you. Thank you for pledging to vote no on SB 1310 if concerns aren’t addressed and for taking a stand to fight for real justice reform. It is time for every lawmaker to do the same.