Arizona has the 4th highest incarceration rate in the nation, just behind Mississippi, Oklahoma and Louisiana. For the last 2 decades, the prison population in Arizona has increased by 300% and the cost to fund it has increased by 400%. In fact, Arizona spends over 1 billion dollars a year on prisons each year and has nearly 40,000 people currently incarcerated. Only in the last few years have legislators acknowledged that our system isn’t working.
Arizona’s incarceration rates have not increased for reasons you may think. Serious, violent crimes have been decreasing for years. There is not just one cause attributing to our high incarceration rates and legislators on both sides of the aisle have proposed bills to change aspects of the criminal justice system to reduce incarceration rates, reduce recidivism, and alleviate the burden that high incarceration rates have on taxpayers. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, political tactics have kept these bills from even being heard on the floor, despite having bi-partisan support.
This year, a ballot initiative called “Second Chances, Rehabilitation, and Public Safety Act” has real potential to enact the changes many Arizonans want. The petition must get 237,645 signatures by July 2, 2020 to make it onto the 2020 ballot in November. Once on the ballot, the decision to make necessary change will be in the voter’s hands.
The Second Chances Act would add a statute which would authorize Judges to sentence non-violent offenders to less than the mandatory minimum sentencing laws currently allow; it would remove the requirement that Judges sentence those with “Hannah priors” as repetitive offenders; increase the amount of earned time credit an inmate can earn to reduce their sentence; and would establish a new fund that would provide services for trauma experienced by first responders in the line of duty and to victims of violent crime using unused money from the state’s Medical Marijuana Fund.
The biggest contributor to Arizona’s mass incarceration problem is likely our infamous Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws. When legislators enacted these laws, they limited criminal judges’ ability to make appropriate sentencing decisions. Legislators are not privy to information about each individual case and each individual offender, yet these laws essentially allow them to decide how much prison time an individual should serve. A Judge who has access to and can consider all the information, including a person’s background, character, personal circumstances, nature of the crime, culpability, and more, is arguably better equipped than legislators to make sentencing decisions. With the current laws in place, it can sometimes feel like a computer is generating someone’s prison sentence.
Even worse than tying our Judges’ hands and preventing them from tailoring sentences to each individual, many believe Arizona’s mandatory minimums are overly harsh. Their mere existence essentially “strong arms” many defendants into accepting a plea agreement instead of taking their chances with a jury. Sure, sometimes plea agreements are fair. Many times they are not. The prosecutor has the power to decide nearly everything in a case, from what to charge, to how many counts to charge, and whether to allege any aggravating factors. The plea offer only has to be slightly better than the sentence one would receive if they lost at trial to get someone to choose to plead guilty, and prosecutors know this.
Mandatory minimum sentences are tragic when you consider that no two people are the same and the circumstances and facts surrounding one offense may be drastically different from another—even if the conduct falls under the same violation of the law. The effect this has is that people are going to prison more often and for longer periods of time. You may think if someone is a first-time non-violent offender, they would automatically get probation and a chance to learn from their mistakes, but first-time offenders regularly go to prison in Arizona for non-violent offenses. Judges in Arizona are notorious for saying “my hands are tied” when forced to hand out prison sentences to people who clearly don’t deserve them and to people whose prison sentence will do more harm than good. The Second Chances Act would change this by putting power back in the hands of Judges and not letting prosecutors have it all. It would add an “Interest of Justice” statute to allow judges to sentence non-dangerous offenders to less than the mandatory minimum, if the Judge determines it is in the interest of justice. What does this mean? It does not mean that everyone will get probation, but it will, at a minimum, allow a Judge to intervene when they believe that it would be in the interest of justice to give someone a second chance. This is also important because the longer someone is removed from society, the harder it will be for them to be successful when they are released—just another reason why many people feel prison should be used only as a last resort.
The Second Chances Act would also change Arizona Revised Statute §13-703 to allow Judges to decide whether to sentence someone as a “repetitive offender” when convicted of multiple counts at the same point in time, which currently automatically enhances their sentence. For example, sometimes a defendant is charged with multiple felonies that occurred at different times, all in the same indictment. For instance, say a young man who is struggling with addiction commits 2 thefts one day, and when the police locate him the next day, he resists arrest and then is found to be in possession of drugs. He would be charged with multiple counts “not on the same occasion.” Under Arizona Revised Statute §13-703, if the man goes to trial and loses, the Judge is required to sentence him as a “repetitive” offender and enhance his sentence, even if he has no priors and his crimes were clearly an episode directly related to being under the influence. Again, the Judge’s hands are tied. These are what are known as “Hannah priors” after State v. Hannah, 126 Ariz. 575 (1980). If the Second Chances bill passes, it will amend A.R.S. §13-703 to delete the requirement that a Judge enhance the sentence for someone convicted of multiple crimes under the types of circumstances explained above.
Another significant component to the bill is that Arizona Revised Statute §41-1604.07 would be amended to allow all eligible prisoners serving time for non-dangerous offenses, not just those who are serving time for possession of drugs, to earn one day credit for each day they serve—effectively cutting their sentences in half. This will also be retroactive and allow prisoners already serving time to earn good time credits at the same rate. The Act would also amend A.R.S. §41-1604.07 to delete the requirement that a prisoner achieve an 8th grade literacy level and complete drug treatment or other self-improvement program before being released to community supervision. The idea behind this is not because self-improvement is not important, but rather because not all prison facilities offer the same programs and wait times can be very long to get into the programs. The Department of Corrections still has the power to order a prisoner released to community supervision to enroll in drug treatment and/or additional counseling, rehabilitation, or community service if not completed while in prison. This amendment would ensure some prisoners aren’t being excluded from earning credit because programs are not available to them.
One final important point to address is the establishment of the Victim and First Responder Support Services Fund. If the Second Chances Act is passed, a fund to provide trauma support services to first responders and victims of violent crime will be immediately funded with $5 million of unused money generated by the State’s Medical Marijuana fund. Many first responders and victims of violent crime don’t get the support they need to deal with trauma they have experienced, leading to substance abuse, PTSD, and suicide. The Second Chances Act would give back to first responders and victims of violent crime to ensure they receive ongoing support and resources to work through their trauma.
All Arizonans are affected by our harsh sentencing laws and resulting mass incarceration problem. Arizona taxpayers foot the $1.2 billion it costs to incarcerate nearly 40,000 people, and when people spend long periods of time in prison and are not rehabilitated, they are much more likely to recidivate. By reducing tax dollars spent on unnecessary incarceration, Arizona can invest more in our citizens by providing much needed resources for our schools, better education, and rehabilitation of those already in the criminal justice system. These investments will address the root causes of crime and provide a better foundation for our citizens to be successful without relying on state resources such as welfare. The Second Chances, Rehabilitation, and Public Safety Act could be a win for all Arizonans.
For more information and to find locations where you can sign the petition, please visit https://secondchancesaz.com/ or follow #SecondChancesActAZ