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  • Writer's pictureMukhtar B. Najeeullah

The Arizona Senate failed us. But our fight for criminal justice reform won’t end here.

This year, there was great momentum for meaningful criminal justice reform to finally become law in Arizona. But despite overwhelming, bipartisan support in the Arizona House of Representatives, the Arizona Senate failed to hear several impactful bills—effectively killing them.

Senator Warren Petersen, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, refused to hear HB 2261, a bill that would’ve given people in prison increased access to menstrual products and provided protections for pregnant people. He refused to hear HB 2190, a bill that would’ve brought much-need accountability to county attorney’s offices by requiring them to make public data easily accessible. And he refused to hear HB 2713, an earned release credit bill that would give those who work hard to turn their lives around an opportunity to come home from prison sooner.

These setbacks hurt because I have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system. I want to see criminal justice reform pass not only for those incarcerated, but for all Arizonans. It’s long past time for Arizona to move quickly towards overhauling our outdated criminal legal system which costs taxpayers more than $1.1 billion per year and incarcerates far too many people who need treatment, not confinement.

For years, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, stakeholders, organizations, and private citizens have worked together to propose solutions to this problem. Unfortunately, instead of listening to these proposals, Senate Republicans continue to work with elected prosecutors to put forth smoke-and-mirror bills that hardly put a dent in the mass incarceration crisis and do nothing to provide people with the rehabilitation and programs they need to improve their lives and return to their communities.

One such bill is SB 1064 which is still alive and moving through the legislature. It’s an earned release credit bill that would benefit far less people than HB 2713. The bill is not retroactive for the majority of people it would impact. This means that it would only apply to people sentenced after the bill becomes law while excluding those who are currently incarcerated.

Retroactivity was the central piece in HB 2713 that made this bill so important to ACLU Smart Justice members who have loved ones currently inside or who have been to prison themselves and felt the pain of having no opportunity to earn release credits. Without retroactivity, we cannot support this bill as it would not impact enough of the current prison population to meaningfully reduce the number of people who are currently in prison, nor does it incentivize people in prison to participate in rehabilitative programming.

It is also troubling that powerful elected prosecutors like Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel continue to work behind the scenes to kill reform efforts like HB 2713. Yet, Adel testified in full support of the watered down SB 1064. This is not the comprehensive criminal justice reform Arizona desperately needs. It is not the bold action that Arizonans want to reduce the unnecessarily bloated prison population, reduce our spending on jails and prison, while keeping our communities safe.

Bills have been introduced and discarded because of partisanship rather than justice. Public servants such as representatives, senators, and elected prosecutors should not be allowed to continue ignoring the will of the people. I am a firm believer in democracy. By denying criminal justice reform bills a simple hearing, Sen. Petersen undermined the process and took the opportunity away from his colleagues to debate these bills. By discussing and amending these bills behind closed doors and without public input, elected prosecutors used their outside influence to continue the failed policies that have given Arizona the 4th highest incarceration rate in the country. Democracy doesn’t demand that we agree, but it does demand we participate. When will our elected officials participate in the process of change and not apathy? When will they take the lead on pursuing reform instead of continuing the failed policies of the past?

It's time for Arizonans to demand change and for our politicians to listen. Together, we can end mass incarceration in Arizona.

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