Some Arizona Lawmakers Say Maricopa County Attorney Vetoed Criminal Justice Reform

Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2019 - 12:42pm
Updated: Thursday, March 7, 2019 - 10:23am
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Jude Joffe-Block/KJZZ
Bill Montgomery.

The 2019 Arizona legislative session began with a bipartisan effort to reduce Arizona’s prison population and recidivism rate through the introduction of a slate of criminal justice reform bills.

The movement was spurred by local and national activist groups citing Arizona’s high incarceration rate and the Arizona Department of Corrections’ ballooning billion-dollar budget. The reform message was also voiced directly from formerly incarcerated people to the ears of lawmakers.

But it appears that many of the more aggressive bills that were proposed earlier in the session will fail.

A Sentencing and Recidivism Reform Committee was originally scheduled to handle the reform issues but the chairman, Rep. David Stringer, was removed from his position and the committee was dissolved by Speaker of The House Rusty Bowers. Much of the work shifted to the House Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Walter Blackman sponsored a bill that would have allowed for people to earn release credits and serve more of their sentence in the community instead of in prison but the bill was not given a hearing.

Rep. John Allen, the chair of the committee, had a less aggressive form of that bill, but he didn’t allow a vote on it.

What’s left is a Senate bill that was just transmitted to the House that also deals with earned release critics. But reform groups say it falls short of the original proposition and would not affect nearly as many people.

With bipartisan support from liberal and conservative national groups, the Arizona Legislature finds itself with less than impressive results. One reason may be pushback from Arizona county attorneys.

On Feb.  20, Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers addressed the House Judiciary Committee in favor of his own bill which would amend state law regulating sex offender registries. His bill would allow some offenders to get their names off a list earlier than currently allowed.

“The idea of perpetual punishment in some ways seems incongruous with any altruism in our society," Bowers said. "If we’re moving towards the perpetual punishment, I just see collapse.”

Bowers called his proposed change to the law incremental and said he would be willing have it amended. He indicated he would like to see a stronger bill than the one he presented, but said this was the version the county attorney would be willing to work with.

Sensing his frustration, Rep. Kirsten Engel asked Bowers if the Maricopa County attorney was standing in the way.

“Are you referring to specifically to Bill Montgomery? And are you saying he has a veto over what we do here in the Legislature,” Engel asked.

“I understand what a marriage takes, and I want to stay married," Bowers responded. "If there are conditions that allow us to keep talking to each other, I’m not going to beat up my spouse or speak ill of that person and expect us to get along great. I want to keep those channels open. I’m grateful and we do talk and he has his opinions and others have their opinions and there are more people in the room then them."

Bowers went on to say the county’s attorney has strong positions relative to their job which he described as "influential." Bowers acknowledged that this slowed the pace of reform.

“Would I like to accelerate that?" he asked. "Yes, I would.”

The exchange elicited remarks from almost everyone on the committee because Bowers didn’t refute Engel’s claim that montgomery has a veto over them. Engel called the situation "profoundly concerning."

Rep. Mark Finchem said he valued input from all experts including the County Attorney, saying he had spoken with Montgomery on a number of occasions. “Partly because he’s an open resource,” he said. But Finchem said he would not charactize Montgomery as having a veto, saying he found the suggestion offensive.

Rep.  Jay Lawrence called the comment on Montgomery’s alleged power out of line.

“Bill Montgomery is an outstanding source for all of us interested in law enforcement,” Lawrence said.

Rep. Bret Roberts defended Montgomery as well, saying he respected his opinion. “I look to him as an industry leader," Roberts said, "an industry expert. I respect his opinion just as much as I respect Ken Volkmer’s opinion from Pinal County or any other county attorney so I look to those leaders for input because it’s not my field of expertise.”

Rep. Diego Rodriguez summed up his concerns by addressing Bowers' bill, which Rodriguez cited as a law that everyone seemed to agree was in need of change.

"And yet we hesitate to do what we can do, what we know we should do, because we do not have the backing of the county attorneys," Rodriguez said. "I think is an abdication of our role as legislators.”

Senate Bill 1310 could get a hearing in the house next week. Reform activists say if it doesn't go far enough to address the needs they have identified, they could end up pushing for a criminal justice reform ballot initiative.

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