Arizona lawmaker urges changes to state prison system

By Howard Fischer, Your Valley

Rep. Walt Blackman lays out his goals Monday for reducing prison population by creating more opportunities for inmates to earn credits for early release, something now precluded by state law. Rep. Bret Roberts, at his side, said he’s willing to consider some plans but remains “apprehensive” about major changes. [Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services]

Rep. Walt Blackman lays out his goals Monday for reducing prison population by creating more opportunities for inmates to earn credits for early release, something now precluded by state law. Rep. Bret Roberts, at his side, said he’s willing to consider some plans but remains “apprehensive” about major changes. [Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services]

Saying the current system is unsustainable, a first-term lawmaker took the initial steps Monday to what he hopes will be reforming the state prison system.

And Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, said he’s prepared to take on prosecutors if it comes to that.

Mr. Blackman said Monday that Arizona incarcerates a higher percentage of its residents than all but three other states.

At the same time, he said, it’s costing Arizona taxpayers $1.2 billion a year, with $1 out of every $10 being spent to run the state. And one out of every three inmates discharged returns to custody within three years.

Mr. Blackman is focusing at least initially on changing the system of earned release credits in a way that would allow inmates to get out early if they complete certain programs designed to give them the skills they need on the outside and prevent them from re-offending.

“We need to create new incentives and real programming for our inmates so they can have success when they leave our corrections facilities,” he said. To that end, Mr. Blackman convinced House Speaker Rusty Bowers to form — and let him chair — a special panel to look at earned released credits and craft something for the full Legislature to consider this coming year.

That panel had its first meeting Monday, hearing from the Department of Corrections, some prison reform advocates and a retired judge who provided some data on incarceration rates.

But Mr. Blackman acknowledged that at some point it will be necessary to look at the front end of the system — people being sent to prison — to deal with how Arizona ended up with more than 42,000 people behind bars in state and private facilities.

That could put him into conflict with at least some prosecutors, notably Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery who has been at the forefront of killing prior measures aimed altering laws on mandatory sentencing and minimum prison terms.

But Mr. Montgomery told Capitol Media Services his opposition to some proposals has been based on his belief that they simply sought to cut sentences without first seeing what actually will work to keep people from ending up back behind bars.

“We need to identify the successful programming,” he said.

“Then we can take a look at how long do we have to provide that programming to have the impact we’re looking for and what types of programs are the most successful,” Mr. Montgomery said. “And where the data goes, I’m more than willing to follow.”

Mr. Blackman, who scheduled a private meeting with Montgomery following Monday’s meeting, said he’s not going to be deterred from trying to get something through, saying that the residents of his northeast Arizona legislative district want prison reform.

“I do not need Mr. Montgomery’s permission to do what I’m going to do,” he said.

“He may have powers behind the curtain to do whatever he does,” Mr. Blackman continued. “I don’t know.”

Mr. Montgomery countered that he does everything in the open, using “objective data” in urging lawmakers to approve or kill any measure.

At the heart of the issue are Arizona’s “truth in sentencing” laws enacted in 1993, requiring inmates to serve at least 85% of their sentence before they are eligible for release. That effectively put sharp limits on the ability of those behind bars to earn early release credits for completing certain programs.

Arizona has taken only baby steps in reducing its prison population.

The state has set up two “reentry centers” to deal with newly released inmates who commit minor infractions of their release conditions, providing them services rather than sending them back to prison.

And last year lawmakers agreed to allow some people convicted of simple possession of drugs to be eligible for release after serving 70% of their sentences if they complete drug treatment or other programs.

Mr. Blackman said more flexibility is needed in the laws.

“We need justice systems that have a different response for different situations,” he said.

“That means shifting gears to treatment, to prevention, to enhanced transition programs and long-term public safety solutions,” Mr. Blackman said. “The time has come for common-sense prison reform.”

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Olivia McDowellComment