Kirsten Engel: For criminal justice reform, it is ‘maybe next year’ again

Arizona voters overwhelmingly support criminal justice reform, regardless of party lines and demographic groups. According to the bipartisan advocacy organization,, four out of five voters believe it important to reduce the number of incarcerated people and only 1%want to spend additional tax dollars on jails and prisons.

Nevertheless, for yet another year, the Republican legislative majority and the governor continue to thwart your will. The solitary reform bill signed by the governor is a mere poke at Arizona’s antiquated “Truth in Sentencing” laws, where a full-fledged stab is warranted. While any progress tackling Arizona’s fourth-highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate is a step forward, the progress Arizona voters clearly want is being stymied by a small cadre of powerful people inside and out of the legislature.

This year was supposed to be different. I was privileged to be part of a wide-ranging group of stakeholders that included legislators from both sides of the aisle and groups as diverse as Americans for Prosperity and the ACLU, that met regularly before session to hammer out criminal justice reform bills.

Our goal was to reduce Arizona’s sky-high incarceration and recidivism rates by mitigating the severity of drug sentences; sending nonviolent drug offenders to treatment, probation and diversion programs; removing barriers to ex-offenders getting jobs or housing; and returning to judges the sentencing discretion lost to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. To increase chances of passage, we sought Republican sponsors and co-sponsors, including the House speaker, and adopted model legislation from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

Here’s what happened:

House Bill 2404 — Reduce simple possession of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor. Never heard.

HB 2424 — Remove stigma of felony label during the probationary period of low-level felons. While an amended version passed the House unanimously, it was never heard in the Senate.

HB 2362 — Enable felons who have completed probation or prison and demonstrated rehabilitation to wipe their records clean of their felony conviction. Never assigned to committee.

HB 2245 — Return sentencing discretion to judges by empowering them to override a mandatory minimum sentence based upon specific findings. Speaker Rusty Bowers co-sponsored the bill but it was never heard in committee.

HB 2270 — Reform Arizona’s antiquated “Truth in Sentencing” laws requiring felons serve 85% of their sentence by reducing the percentage based upon the seriousness of the offense. Never heard in committee.

HB 2362 — Reserve longer sentences for repetitive law-breaking to true repeat offenders, persons who were previously convicted of another crime before committing the current offense. Passed House overwhelmingly twice and Senate once, vetoed by Gov. Ducey.

What went wrong?

It begins with the Judiciary chairs of the House and Senate — Rep. John Allen and Sen. Eddie Farnsworth — who refused to hear anything opposed by powerful prosecutors who are against any reform. The result is a system horribly out of whack. Arizona spends over a 10th of its budget on prisons, while neighboring states, such as Utah, who have embraced reforms, spend far less and have reduced both crime and imprisonment.

While I am thankful the governor signed Senate Bill 1310 — which provides earlier prison release for persons convicted of drug possession who complete drug treatment or another major self-improvement programs in prison — so much more than this is needed. There is no excuse for this monumental failure to Arizona’s communities and taxpayers. “Next year” is not good enough. It’s long past time for lawmakers to stop listening to politically ambitious prosecutors and start listening to their constituents.


This post was originally posted as an opinion piece in the Arizona Daily Star on June 13, 2019

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