Democrats pushing package of criminal justice reform bills in 2020

By: - January 21, 2020 3:43 pm

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As hopes fly high for a legislative session that will succeed in passing meaningful criminal justice reform, Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday unveiled a detailed agenda that includes giving more inmates a chance to reduce their prison sentence and freeing judges from issuing mandatory sentences. 

Rep. Kristen Engel, D-Tucson, rattled off statistics at a Capitol press conference that she said are proof that reforms in Arizona’s correctional and justice systems are needed. 

“One out of every 134 adults in Arizona is currently incarcerated,” Engel said. “We now spend $1.2 billion on this broken system a year… The legislature appropriates more tax dollars to prisons than universities, child safety or economic security… By 2017, two-thirds of those incarcerated for first-time felonies were there for a non-violent crime… 78% of inmates have substance abuse history.”

In 2019, there was a bipartisan push to pass criminal justice reforms, specifically on earned release credits legislation, which would allow inmates to earn earlier releases from prison. Arizona’s 1993 “truth in sentencing” law requires people to serve at least 85% of their prison sentences. One proposal passed and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey last year reduced that 85% requirement to 70% for drug possession offenses.

This year, Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, wants to expand that to most of Arizona’s inmates. 

“It’s not a zero-sum game between victims and reform,” Rodriguez said. “We can do both.”

The proposals Democrats consider will push reforms include:

  • House Bill 2045 prohibits the Department of Corrections from contracting a private entity for providing medical, mental health and dental services to inmates. Instead, the state agency will be responsible for the prison healthcare system
  • House Bill 2178 mandates the expungement of records for any arrest, charge, or conviction for possession or use of marijuana. 
  • House Bill 2552 requires notification to the Industrial Commission of Arizona every time an inmate is injured while working in state or private prison, or for a contractor of the Department of Corrections
  • House Bill 2556 increases the minimum wage for employed inmates to $3 per hour. Current wages are $2 an hour minimum for some prison workers, and less than $1.50 for other employed inmates 
  • House Bill 2558 automatically restores voting rights for people convicted of a felony 
  • House Bill 2560 allows judges to have a say in the mandatory fines and fees. Currently, judges are only allow to mitigate non-mandatory fines
  • House Bill 2561 gives $1.5 million to Pima County for drug diversion and treatment programs for fiscal year 2021

Other legislation in the works includes a Rodriguez proposal to change how drug possession convictions are used to make for harsher sentences. He said current rules allow for people with drug addictions to be sent to prison “for longer stretches simply because they are addicts.”

Rodriguez said he also will be introducing a bill that allows schools that find a student to be selling or possessing an illegal drug to refer those minors to a program for at-risk students instead of contacting police.  

Engel also said she has legislation coming to allow judges to avoid imposing mandatory minimum sentences. 

At the press conference, she took a jab at Ducey, who in his state of the state speech last week announced that the Department of Correction will now be called Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry.

“This session, it will take more than a name change to the Department of Corrections to get needed reforms enacted into law. It will take political will,” Engel said. 

Engel also said both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are willing to push for those reforms. But she called out “gatekeepers” at the legislature who shut down those proposals and keep them from ever being discussed in committees.  

Last legislative session, an ambitious agenda was largely blocked by Rep. John Allen and Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, who chair the judiciary committees in their respective chambers, as well as by opposition from outside critics.

A bipartisan committee chaired by Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, convened last year to craft sentencing reform legislation. 

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez Rodriguez previously covered state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.