Arizona sentencing reforms: Long overdue but finally on the way?

Arizona has one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States and remains out of step with sentencing reform trends across the country despite some baby steps this summer. But this may be about to change. Earlier this December, a bipartisan state legislative committee unanimously recommended ten changes to Arizona’s sentencing laws designed to promote the rehabilitation of inmates and reduce Arizona’s reliance on lengthy prison sentences.

What changes did the committee recommend? Will the state legislature and the government adopt the recommendations? More after the jump.

After the Arizona legislature took a few hesitant steps towards sentencing reform over the summer, the Arizona state legislature’s Ad Hoc Committee on Earned Release Credits for Prisoners conveyed a series of public meetings to consider more serious reforms. Earlier this December, the committee concluded its work and unanimously recommended ten (10) changes to the state’s sentencing laws.

The Committee recommended several measures designed to promote the rehabilitation of prisoners, including the use of including the use of public-private partnerships to promote reintergration, and expanding drug treatment programs and programs designed to assist prisoners re-enter society after prison. Also, the committee recommended measures designed to avoid a criminal conviction in the first place or else to reduce the length of sentences for people affected by drug addiction. If the committee’s proposals were adopted, more criminal defendants would be eligible for diversion programs that would allow them to avoid a criminal conviction and these program would be available throughout Arizona. Also, the proposals would limit sentencing “enhancements” for people previously convicted of drug crimes. In addition, the committee recommended changes to enhance transparency in prosecution and sentencing. Criminal justice agencies would be required to report data to the legislature. Also, the state would create a state-wide database of information about charges, sentences and prison demographic data.

However, the Committee’s recommendation to expand the state’s earned credit release program is the most controversial. If enacted, the committee’s proposal would allow many prisoners to earn release after completing 60% of their sentence. Current state law allows early release only after serving 85% of a prisoner’s sentence.

Some committee legislators were unwilling to commit to the 60% earned release proposal, even while signing on to the reform proposals as a whole. Individual legislators cited the desire to explore imposing different requirements for people convicted of “violent” crimes or to examine more data on the subject. There is also some question about whether other powerful legislators even will permit the proposals a hearing in the next legislative session. As for the Governor, Doug Ducey has remained non-committal. Without addressing the specific proposal, Ducey signaled general approval for expanding the earned release program, while also indicating that any such expansion should focus on nonviolent offenders without “no gang affiliation.”

Any action on the Committee’s recommendation won’t happen until next year, when the state legislature reconvenes.

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