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Op-ed Placement

New Legislation Would Place Prisoners on Path to Success

BY Jason Pye and Lauren Krisai
02/18/2020
Originally Published in The Arizona Capitol Times by Jason Pye and Lauren Krisai on 2/17/20.

All across the country, at all levels of government, Americans are changing the way they think about the criminal justice system. Just this month, President Trump launched his first official campaign ad during the Super Bowl, and chose to focus his message on criminal justice reform. That he chose to run his first major ad, which reached over 100 million viewers, on criminal justice reform shows just how popular this issue has become.

The issue is also gaining traction in Arizona. This year, Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, filed “earned credits” reform legislation, HB2808, which is aimed at incentivizing rehabilitation, reducing recidivism, and expanding second chances. The bill allows nonviolent inmates to earn additional credits toward an earlier transfer from prison to community supervision if they complete a drug treatment program, major self-improvement program, or are actively participating in certain work programs.

This bill doesn’t reduce the length of an inmate’s sentence, only changes what percentage of that sentence is served behind bars versus on community supervision. Instead of requiring nonviolent offenders to serve 85% of their sentences in prison, it allows them to serve a minimum of 70% behind bars and up to 30% on community supervision. This additional time on community supervision may only be earned if they complete one of the above listed programs or participate in a certain work program for six-months.

That extra 15% on community supervision serves as an incentive to take advantage of these programs while incarcerated. It means offenders who are committed to reforming their behavior can have the jump-start they need to become productive members of society that much faster.

Arizona is only one of three states that requires most or all nonviolent offenders serve 85% of their sentences behind bars. Many states have moved away from this tough sentencing scheme and have recognized that nonviolent offenders are better served in the community than behind bars. And the results speak for themselves: in states that have reduced sentences for nonviolent offenders or have increased earned credit opportunities, they’ve seen significant decreases in both crime and incarceration rates.

At least 36 states have laws that allow inmates to earn additional credits toward an earlier release for active participation or successful completion of some sort of in-prison rehabilitative programming. Combined with other reforms, these have had a significant effect. Mississippi, for instance, saw a 20.5% drop in its prison population between 2008 and 2018, along with a 17.7% reduction in its violent crime rate. South Carolina reduced its inmate population by 14.5% between 2010 and 2017, and saw an 18.3% reduction in its violent crime rate.

While Arizona’s HB2808 is a modest bill compared to what some other states have done in recent years – including deep-red states like Mississippi, South Carolina, and Oklahoma – it represents a positive step in the right direction for Arizona, and the bill will impact thousands of inmates.

Currently, over 10,800 inmates are incarcerated in Arizona for nonviolent offenses, representing over 25% of the prison population. These inmates also have no violent history, making them eligible to earn credits under HB2808. In Fiscal Year 2019, individuals admitted to prison for a nonviolent offense and who had no prior violent history accounted for 43.1% of all admissions to prison in Arizona.

Arizona routinely incarcerates nonviolent offenders who can and should be better served by alternatives like treatment and probation. And unfortunately, due to the large percentage of their sentences they’re currently required to serve behind bars, they may leave prison more hardened than when they came in.

Put another way: Arizona’s criminal justice system is not currently incentivizing success. It instead places too many barriers before individuals who have made mistakes, making it harder for them to receive a second chance even when they work hard for it. This puts our communities at risk, tears families apart, and wastes taxpayer dollars. The state can and must do better.

While there is much more work to be done in Arizona, we recognize and appreciate that Blackman’s bill represents a positive step forward for the state. With President Trump, Democrats and Republican lawmakers, and constituents all broadly supportive of criminal justice reform, opposing reform at this point is a losing issue.

*Lauren Krisai is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Justice Action Network, Jason Pye is the Vice President of Legislative Affairs for FreedomWorks. *