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Arizona has a mandatory incarceration law dating to 1978, and it generally has worked well. However, prison and criminal justice reform is a big topic these days for various reasons. The Legislature is considering some changes as part of a package that was proposed previously but revamped somewhat. There is much to like with it.

While mandatory sentencing ranges for certain crimes do ensure some uniformity, the other side of the coin is that there are cases with circumstances such that the best justice outcome is not achieved.

House Bill 2673 retains mandatory sentencing but it would allow judges more leeway in cases where they believe an injustice would be done to the defendant, the crime was not serious or dangerous, and that protection of the public was not an issue. The judge would have to explain the reasons on the record, which certainly would be considered when the judge went through the evaluation process for retention.

The package also would prevent the state from denying some licenses to those convicted of drug offenses. It also would stop prosecutors from “stacking” charges from the same crime to get an enhanced sentence.

Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer, who always seems to have a sensible approach to reforms, said that while he is officially neutral on sentencing reform, it would mean “good governance.” Allowing judges more discretion in some cases would be good, he said.

Arizona is not likely to adopt the stance of some states that allows dangerous criminals to roam the streets. But some reforms would help in returning some people to society with more of a chance to succeed. They also could save the state some money if it meant fewer people in prison. Part of this proposal was vetoed by Gov. Doug Ducey in 2019. Changes apparently have made this package better, and it could just make the state better too.

— Donovan Kramer Jr.

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