Formerly Incarcerated People Say Sentence Reduction Legislation Will Inspire Hope In Arizona Prisons

By Jimmy Jenkins
Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2019 - 6:37pm
Updated: Tuesday, January 22, 2019 - 7:06pm

Formerly incarcerated people spoke to lawmakers
Jimmy Jenkins/KJZZ
Formerly incarcerated people spoke to lawmakers in favor of a new bill that would reduce sentences for people in Arizona prisons at Reframing Justice Day at the Arizona state Capitol.

Standing in the Rose Garden of the Arizona Capitol, Joe Watson reflected on a time when his vantage point was much different.

“When I was incarcerated, we used to hear rumors of sentencing reform, only to have them dashed,” he said. “But to those in prison now, I say know that this is real. It’s OK to have hope.”

Watson is now the communications director for the American Friends Service Committee of Arizona, which held a day of action at the statehouse Tuesday to rally support for a slate of new criminal justice reform legislation.

At the top of the list: HB 2270, a bill that would allow people in state prisons to earn credit against their sentences with good behavior and participation in rehabilitative programming.

Sponsored by state Rep. Walter Blackman, the bill would change state law so that nonviolent offenders could earn one day for every day served, while those convicted of a dangerous offense could earn one day for every three days served. People convicted of “a dangerous crime against children” would only be eligible to earn one day for every six days served in prison.

Several formerly incarcerated people were on hand for the rally, officially proclaimed “Reframing Justice Day,” to speak with lawmakers about how the change in the sentencing law would impact the lives of the convicted.

“That hope gives people life,” said Gerald Williams, who was formerly incarcerated.

Williams said the opportunity to earn time off a sentence would incentivize those incarcerated in Arizona state prisons to better themselves.

“The hope will keep you pushing toward doing the right thing, to do the things that will help them be successful and productive in society,” Williams said.

Zachary Stout spent more than two years in an Arizona prison. He says for the law to work, there will need to be an expansion of programming opportunities for the incarcerated.

“There were so many people that I was locked up with that wanted to change and wanted to do something better with their lives, but it just wasn’t there,” he said. “You’re surrounded by violence. You’re surrounded by anger. And no one’s ever thinking about the future.”

Stout says many people that are incarcerated, knowing they will have to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, opt to serve 100 percent of their sentence so that they will not be required to undergo community supervision upon their release.

“The hope will keep you pushing toward doing the right thing, to do the things that will help them be successful and productive in society.”
— Gerald Williams

“It’s called ‘killing your number,’” but he said the practice leads to a population that will likely recidivate.

“So in that case, you’re wasting even more taxpayer dollars,” Stout said. “You’re not preparing people to re-enter into society. It’s terrible. It’s because there’s no incentive to change.”

State Rep. Richard Andrade was one of several lawmakers on hand to hear about the potential impact of the proposed legislation. He says he believes there is momentum at the Legislature for sentencing reform.

“We spend way too much money on incarceration,” he said. “We need to make an investment in education and prevent people from entering into the prison system in the first place.”

“We’re dealing with people - we’re dealing with lives,” Andrade said after listening to the firsthand accounts of formerly incarcerated people. “They have the potential and the talent to do great things in our communities.”

Andrade acknowledged that this was not the first attempt to pass reform measures.

“Every year, we see these kind of bills introduced and they never make headway,” Andrade said. “But I think there are members in both the Democrat and Republican caucus that are realizing our prison population is way too high here in Arizona.”

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said his office had yet to see “reliable data that identifies the impact to public safety and victims from these proposals.”

“Efforts to implement more programming and treatment for the currently incarcerated will have a greater and more positive effect,” Montgomery said, “in addition to expanding pretrial intervention programs and community re-entry efforts.”

Piper Kerman
Jimmy Jenkins/KJZZ
Author and criminal justice advocate Piper Kerman speaks at Reframing Justice Day at the Arizona state Capitol.

As of December, there were close to 42,000 people in the public and private state prisons in Arizona. A recent report from the ACLU said Arizona had the fourth-highest rate of imprisonment in the United States. The fiscal 2019 budget for the Arizona Department of Corrections is more than $1 billion.

Author and prison reform activist Piper Kerman was in attendance to rally support for the legislation and to meet with lawmakers.

“I think that all over the country, there is an ever-increasing recognition that the status quo when it comes to criminal justice is not working,” Kerman said. “It’s not working in terms of public safety. It’s not working in terms of social justice for all communities, and certainly that’s true here in Arizona.”

Kerman said it’s time to rewrite sentencing laws that have been on the books for a generation.

“The fruit of those bad policies is very clear-cut,” Kerman said. “There are so many people negatively impacted by the criminal justice system now that there is, I think, a groundswell. It’s costly on an economic level, but it’s costly on a human level as well.”

Mukhtar Najeeullah says he was directly impacted by the criminal justice system and felt it was necessary to come and lend his support to the proposed legislation.

“When you don’t have any incentive, why try?” he asked. “We have to change what we call, the stinkin' thinkin’ of people who are in prison, and I know, because I was one them.”

“We have to change that mentality,” he said, “and the way we do it is by having more programs and giving them the ability to earn time off their sentence. But the key thing is that they earn the time.”

HB 2270