PHOENIX -- For the second time this year, the House of Representatives passed legislation to allow some prison inmates to earn earlier releases, but it remains to be seen whether it will get a vote in the Senate, where the bill already died once this legislative session.
On a vote of 50-8, the House on Monday passed Senate Bill 1064. The bill would loosen Arizona’s criminal sentencing statutes, which are among the strictest in the United States, to allow some inmates to earn up to two-thirds off their sentences.
Arizona’s “truth in sentencing” law, passed in 1993, requires inmates to serve at least 85% of their sentences. Inmates who complete substance abuse or other self-improvement programs qualify for “earned release credits” that allow them to serve the remainder of their sentences under community supervision outside of prison.
SB1064 would substantially increase the amount of earned release credits that some inmates are eligible to receive. Drug offenders, who are already eligible to get up to 30% off their sentences under a 2019 law, could get out after serving about two-thirds of their sentences. Some other nonviolent offenders could get up to half off their sentences, but that would only apply to people convicted after the law goes into effect.
While the bill received overwhelming bipartisan support in the House — it exceeded the 47 votes garnered by Rep. Walt Blackman’s predecessor bill earlier in the year — that vote total won’t matter if SB1064 can’t get a hearing in the Senate as the 2021 legislative session nears its end, which will likely come later this week.
Blackman told the Arizona Mirror that he doesn’t know whether Senate President Karen Fann will put it up for a vote. Fann did not respond to a message from the Mirror.
“The question is, is the president in the Senate willing to put it up and leave it up to the governor to either sign it or veto it?” Blackman, a Republican from Snowflake, said last week.
Blackman also argued that his sentencing reform proposal would ultimately save the state hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
The current proposal was amended onto a separate Senate bill after Blackman’s previous version, House Bill 2713, passed the House, only to die in the Senate when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Warren Petersen refused to hear the legislation in his committee.
The House also approved an amendment proposed by Blackman, who has spent the past three years trying to expand earned release credits, to make several changes to the underlying bill.
Blackman’s amendment expands the list of offenses that would make inmates ineligible to receive additional earned release credits, which already included a host of violent and other serious crimes, to include things like sexual extortion, labor and other human trafficking, and a host of other sex crimes and crimes against children. And it would require the Department Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry to expand the amount of programming it offers so that it’s available to all inmates, among other changes.
“We are an outlier when we are talking about criminal justice reform, particularly earned release credits. The data is there. Mandatory sentences do not work,” Blackman told his House colleagues. “Mandatory sentences do nothing to rehabilitate that inmate, which is going to cost Arizona taxpayers more money in the future.”
Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, attempted to amend the bill by expanding the list of offenses that would make inmates ineligible for earlier release dates and earmarking half of all earned release credits for people convicted of drug possession or paraphernalia offenses. His amendment also would have reinstated a literacy requirement for those seeking early release that Blackman’s bill removes, as well as other proposed changes.
It was handily defeated, garnering just five votes.
“Responsibly incremental is something I believe in when it comes to criminal justice reform, and public safety should come first and foremost when it comes to criminal justice reform,” said Roberts, who emphasized that he’s been working on criminal justice reform since he got to the legislature.
Roberts said data show that people who can read at an eighth-grade level or higher have lower rates of recidivism. Blackman responded that the bill and his amendment still requires inmates who can’t read at an eighth-grade level to enroll in a literacy program before they become eligible for earned release credits.
Rep. John Kavanagh, a former police officer with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, sided with Roberts, arguing that many states across the U.S. are moving too fast and going too far with sentencing reforms, as well as other criminal justice reforms in areas like cash bail and prosecutorial discretion.
“If we’re going to err on the side of anything, it should be on the side of the safety of our constituents. There’s plenty of time to go further,” said Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican.
But the overwhelming majority of House members supported the bill and Blackman’s amendment. Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, said Blackman was correct in saying that longer mandatory sentences don’t do anything to rehabilitate inmates.
“It does not make the community safer. It costs the community more money in the long run to incarcerate people than it does to rehabilitate them,” said Rodriguez, a former prosecutor.
Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said the bill creates incentives that don’t currently exist for some inmates to better themselves.
“Right now there is little incentive for offenders to invest time — and let’s be honest, they have plenty of time — and effort into developing skills and treatment while they’re incarcerated,” Toma said.
Jeremy Duda is associate editor of the Arizona Mirror, a non-profit independent Arizona news organization.