Criminal Justice Reform Activists Push For Hearings As Deadline Looms At Arizona Capitol

By Jimmy Jenkins
Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2019 - 4:40pm
Updated: Thursday, February 14, 2019 - 9:16am

Supporters hold a vigil at the Statehouse
Jimmy Jenkins/KJZZ
Supporters of criminal justice reform bills hold a vigil at the Arizona Capitol on Feb. 12, 2019.

With a deadline approaching at the Arizona Legislature for new bills to be heard in committee, supporters of criminal justice reform legislation held a vigil at the Capitol on Tuesday night. 

Reform groups are pushing for a slate of bills that would impact the criminal justice system, but are specifically focusing on a House bill that would reduce the amount of time people convicted of a crime would have to spend in prison.

House Bill 2270 would allow the incarcerated to serve up to half of their sentence in the community instead of in prison.

Dawn Curtis said she believes stigma and bias are playing a role in lawmakers’ reluctance to adopt reform legislation.

"We’re hoping to create awareness," she said. "We’re hoping to create change. We’re hoping to create hope. Because the way the system is now, it feels hopeless."

Curtis's son Bryce Garrett says his family suffered while his mother was incarcerated in the Perryville women’s prison. "The toll on a child that experiences something like this is immense," he said. "I became distant. Not only did I lose hope, I stopped caring about just about everything. My grades dropped. I felt lost and confused."

He says the longer children are separated from their parents because of a prison sentence, the more harm is done to the family. "If people understand that we can give people in prison the incentives and hope and tools they need, then we have the ability to build a stronger community built on a foundation of compassion, acceptance and understanding," he said.

Vonda Bennett spent five years in prison and said it completely destroyed her family. She accepts responsibility for her actions but believes her sentence was too long for a first time drug offense.

"If I had a lower sentence and was able to come back out into the community and be able to rebuild my life sooner, my children wouldn't have grown up without a mother," she said. "I am asking the legislators to come forward and realize what they are doing to the public. They are locking up mothers and fathers that could be productive members of society." Bennett said she believes tax payer money would be better spent on building more work release programs and creating alternatives to incarceration.

"It's very sad to be afraid of losing a loved one just because they don't have access to proper care in prison."
— Lillian Coppess

Vicky Campo's son was incarcerated for five years. "These long sentences that keep people locked up do nothing to help reduce recidivism," she said. Her family's experience has led her to believe that more than just sentencing reform is needed. "It's all of the collateral consequences, all of the reentry issues. We need to have reasonable terms of probation," she said.

Many of those in attendance were concerned about the health care their loved ones are receiving in prison. Lillian Coppess's husband has been in prison for 17 years. She says he has contracted Hepatitis C in prison which has led to kidney problems. "He is really sick and he needs medical attention and they don't seem to listen to any of our concerns," she said. "It's very frustrating. He's been on a catheter for five months and doctors on the outside have told me that's not the right thing to do." Coppess believes her husband would receive much better care outside of prison, and she hopes the proposed sentencing reforms will bring him home earlier. "It's very sad to be afraid of losing a loved one just because they don't have access to proper care in prison," she said.

Supporters marched around the Capitol building Tuesday evening and then gathered by the House of Representatives for a moment of silence to recognize those who have died in prison.

As supporters lit candles, they shouted the names of their loved ones that are still incarcerated.

Carmen Hreniuc held up her cell to a megaphone to project the words of her son Tommy, who called from an Arizona prison. "I just want to be able to come there and be a part of my community with you guys and be able to fight for the work that is really needed," he said to the cheers of the crowd.

Hreniuc said her family does the best they can to visit her son and keep in contact. "But it's hard. It's emotionally and physically draining. After you go and you hear those prison doors closing behind you — your heart breaks."

She said she wants people to know that the legislation they are supporting would not simply open up the prisons. "People will have to work for it," she said of the earned release credits outlined in the bill. "The ones that care and the ones that want to become better neighbors and citizens — those are the ones we will be allowing to return to society."