Amidst Federal Reforms, Criminal Justice Advocates See Opportunities At Statehouse

By Jimmy Jenkins
Published: Wednesday, December 19, 2018 - 5:03pm
Updated: Wednesday, December 19, 2018 - 7:17pm

Marilyn Rodriguez says she co-founded Creosote Partners, a progressive lobbying firm, to take advantage of moments like this. Criminal justice reform has come to the forefront of the national political discussion as Congress is poised to pass the First Step act, legislation that will have a significant impact on the federal criminal justice system.

“The first step act is a big signal. They are leading by example,” Rodriguez says of Congress, noting that the support for the legislation has been bipartisan. “Even Trump gets this — it’s weird to say that,” she joked.

But Rodriguez says the national attention is helping to drive reform efforts at the state and local level.

A study from the Prison Policy Initiative shows that more than half of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in America are serving time in state prisons.

Prison graph
Prison Policy Initiative

In Arizona that translates into a Department Of Corrections budget that costs the state more than $1 billion dollars annually. Rodriguez says the growing costs, combined with greater societal awareness of the conditions of incarceration, are bringing both sides of the political spectrum together in advance of the upcoming legislative session. She is currently working with clients on a broad slate of aggressive reform measures to take to the statehouse.

“Criminal justice reform is my favorite issue to work on because it is so non-partisan,” Rodriguez said. “I get to work with progressives, hard right conservatives, moderates — it’s the one issue I’ve found where the crisis level has reached a point where everybody seems to understand that this is a problem that needs to be addressed.”

Rodriguez says she expects to see conservatives and progressives come forward as bill sponsors in the next session for issues like expungement and greater sentencing discretion for judges.

At a budget hearing on Tuesday, Republican lawmaker John Kavanagh told the Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan he believed criminal justice reform would go so far as to reduce the state prison population.

“While I’m not willing to go nearly as far as some of the proponents in Arizona,” Kavanagh said, “I do think that there are going to be some reductions in the prison population because some of the reforms seem reasonable.”

“The prison reform that people are talking about is not just sentencing reform for newly convicted people,” Kavanagh said. “They’re talking about about retroactively reducing ‘Truth In Sentencing.’”

While American Friends Service Committee Arizona Communications Director Joe Watson agrees with that premise, he chafes at the name given to the now contentious public policy stance adopted by many states in the 1980s and 1990s.

“It’s the 85 percent requirement,” Watson said, “which dictates that every single person incarcerated in Arizona prisons must serve 85 percent of their sentence, regardless of the nature of the offense.”

Watson says the requirements de-incentivise personal growth during incarceration and lead to higher recidivism. Reducing the so called “truth in sentencing” requirement will be a main policy goal of AFSC this session.

“What we’re calling the ‘Just Sentencing Bill’ would reduce the 85 percent requirement to 67 percent for folks who are incarcerated for serious, aggravated offenses,” he said. Watson says they are pushing for a 50 percent requirement for all other offenses.

“What incarcerated people would have to do is earn that privilege by going through programming,” Watson said. He believes once the prison population starts to decrease, the savings could be used to further develop the services offered in the prisons as well as create diversionary tracks to keep people out.

Watson believes the policy change is a winning position, noting that incoming House Speaker Rusty Bowers has expressed his support.

“There are others who I think might be a little scared to come out in favor of criminal justice reform, but I have a feeling that there is huge momentum swing happening that will bring them around,” Watson said.

Watson said a greater national awareness has been an important factor for developing a successful ground game in Arizona. He said AFSC will host a “Reframing Justice Day” at the statehouse on Jan. 22, featuring Orange Is The New Black author and renowned criminal justice advocate Piper Kerman.

“Piper’s support, on the heels of federal reforms, really affirms our efforts here in Arizona,” Watson said. “It shows there’s an appetite for reform on a macro level.”

The day of activism will also feature people who were formerly incarcerated. “The human narrative is really what changes hearts and minds,” Watson said. “The folks that have been in the system have amazing stories. They help remind us that they’re not monsters. They aren’t some intangible thing locked up hundreds of miles away from our urban areas. They are human beings that everyone can relate to.”