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Last Remaining Sentencing Reform Bill Would Free None Of The 41,000 People In Arizona Prisons

Passing the Arizona House Judiciary Committee on a vote of 6-4 on Wednesday, Senate Bill 1310 would allow those convicted of drug or paraphernalia possession who don’t have a conviction for a previous violent felony to earn release credits and serve more of their sentence in the community.

A bill overview submitted to the Judiciary Committee says it permits eligible prisoners “to earn release credits at a rate of three days for every seven days served.”

But because the bill is not retroactive, it would free none of the 41,000 people in Arizona prisons.

Rebecca Baker, legislative liaison for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, told the committee the Arizona Department of Corrections told her office there were 1,893 current inmates that would meet the “statutory criteria” of SB1310. Baker said only 80 of the inmates would be eligible for immediate release if the bill was made retroactive.

“Of those 1,893,” she said, “there are 80 that have both completed a major self-improvement program and have reached their 70 percent, so they would immediately be eligible for release.”

“There’s another 594 that have already completed a major self-improvement program but have not yet reached their 70 percent,” Baker said of the current inmate population.

She said it was her understanding that those 594 would be eligible for release within the next year.

Baker said her information came from the Arizona Department of Corrections.

“The intent of this legislation,” Baker said, “is to offer inmates an increased incentive to complete self-improvement programs provided by the department.”

Baker said the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and Sen. Eddie Farnsworth are “supportive of making this bill applicable to inmates who are presently in the Department of Corrections ... and if that needs to be clarified with a retroactivity clause on the floor, we are supportive of that.”

As the bill stands now, no such clause or amendment exists.

When asked about the major self-improvement programs, Baker said it was her understanding they were “taught by certified professionals inside of the Department of Corrections” and included “substance abuse treatment, sex offender treatment, mandatory literacy education, a GED program, a high school education program, a career and technical training program.”

Baker told the committee the bill initially “contemplated that a person had to complete substance abuse treatment in order to earn their credit, but recognizing that there may not be the capacity or maybe even the need for these particular individuals to go through substance abuse treatment, it was broadened to allow them to complete any major self-improvement programs.”

“So they don’t have to do a drug treatment program if they have a drug addiction?” Representative Walter Blackman asked incredulously. “They can just pick any program?”

“If I have a drug addiction and I am in prison,” Blackman proposed, “you’re telling me that I don’t have to take the drug program? I can take another program and get out of prison?”

“Yes,” Baker responded. “The bill allows them to engage and complete any of the major self-improvement programs.”

“We knew, at present,” Baker said, “DOC did not have the capacity for all 1,800 to enter the program, and we wanted to give everyone the opportunity to participate.”

Karen Hellman, ADC division director for inmate programs & reentry, confirmed the shortage of drug treatment personnel to the committee.

"The need of the inmates is greater than our capacity to treat them," she said. “I could not today treat everyone in the system that needs treatment immediately."

Hellman said if all the substance abuse positions at ADC were filled, she could treat about 3,400 inmates each year.

“Currently, my capacity is around 2,500,” she told the committee.

Blackman told his colleagues he would support the bill only if it was significantly amended, citing a lack of resources in the Arizona Department of Corrections.

“I find it ironic that we are passing bills to put people in programs when we don’t have the programs to facilitate them,” he said.

Several people testified against the bill, including American Friends Service Committee spokesperson Joe Watson. The group has been a vocal supporter of more aggressive legislation that was previously offered by Blackman but never received a hearing.

"You just heard this presentation about all these amazing programs in Arizona prison,” Watson told the committee. “But these are very limited in availability and I tell you that from experience. I was just released from Arizona Department of Corrections in June of 2017.”

Watson said most of the programming he took part in and observed was taught by his peers, “by people who are incarcerated, regardless of their substance abuse.” Watson said AFSC is against the bill, calling it “smoke and mirrors.”

Rep. John Allen, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, called the bill “one incremental step,” and spoke of the need for more research and ad hoc committees on earned release credits after the session is over.

SB1310 is now headed to the House floor.

Jimmy Jenkins was a producer and senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2014 to 2021.