Criminal justice reform has swept much of the nation as lawmakers move away from harsh punishment as a deterrent and begin exploring the value of rehabilitation. Many states in the nation have reduced mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, first-time offenders, and property crimes. According to criminal defense attorney Case Darwin, “restorative justice is becoming an increasingly high priority for many states that are looking to reduce recidivism.”
Arizona was slated to join these states, as advocates and legislators appeared to be moving toward consensus on new bills. A last-minute veto has left advocates frustrated and muddied the waters for future negotiations.
Reform Bills Introduced in Arizona
Initially, the bills introduced by Rep. Ben Toma and Sen. J.D. Mesnard were originally much larger in scope. The representatives said that their motivation was to create a justice system that is truly based on justice, rather than punishment. They received a frosty reception from the House Judiciary Committee, which had a history of shooting down bills that would reduce penalties for nonviolent drug offenders, allow for judicial discretion in sentencing, and permit inmates to reduce their prison sentences by attending drug treatment programs. Two bills were introduced this session, and both quickly narrowed in scope as they came under fire from opponents.
Scaling Down the Bill
In an effort to get bills passed and start the path toward criminal justice reform in Arizona, the sponsors of the bill added a section that would still allow prosecutors to use enhanced sentences for first-time convictions, which was initially not included in the bill. Early in the session, legislators noted that they believed enhanced sentences should only be a viable option for multiple offenders who did not learn their lesson after their first conviction. Additionally, they removed a part of the bill that would have required the court system to collect data on plea deals and sentencing. Despite these compromises, legislators were shocked by last-minute resistance to their bills.
A Late Veto and a Divide in Arizona
The sponsors of these bills indicated that they made the request changes with the expectation that opponents would meet them in the middle and pass common-sense reform bills. Instead, prosecutors in Arizona lobbied against the bills and called on Governor Doug Ducey to veto them. Governor Ducey passed one bill that will allow some convicted on drug charges to get out of prison early. He vetoed the other bill, which would have prevented prosecutors from using charges intended for repeat offenders on first-time offenders.
In general, criminal justice reform is widely supported in Arizona. Bills that have passed have done so by a large margin. These measures could keep offenders with a low chance of recidivism from serving excessively long prison sentences, reducing the problem of prison overcrowding and minimizing the financial burden on the state. After this session, however, advocates are unsure about moving forward. They believe that prosecutors and legislators opposed to the bills acted in bad faith, which could weaken further efforts to pass criminal justice reform bills.
How This Could Affect the Public
Those who are charged with a crime may find themselves with over-the-top jail sentences and fines, due to a continued focus on retribution over rehabilitation. This bill will also impact those who are never accused of committing a crime; the current criminal justice system places a substantial burden on Arizona, and the money used to fund the system must be taken from schools, roads, and other public services. Down the road, many hope that legislators will be able to come to an agreement on criminal justice reform. Doing so could give more people a shot at a second chance and the freedom to reintegrate into society after a criminal offense.