N. AZ Legislator Wants Committee to be Start of Criminal Justice Reform
This summer, a group of state legislators are questioning whether state prisons need to increase ways inmates can earn time off their sentences with programs like drug rehabilitation, anger management and skills training.
Current law says they must be nearly 85 percent of the way through their sentence before participating in these programs.
The committee is chaired by northern Arizona Representative Walter Blackman. He spoke with KNAU’s Zac Ziegler:
Zac Ziegler: “Why does the program need to reform, and what--in your mind-- does that reform look like?”
Walter Blackman: “First of all, we need to reform because we're one of the last states to do this. And those states that have reformed, they've seen a drop in recidivism rate and they've also seen increased enhanced programming within the prison system. Why we need to do it because these folks are going to be getting out of prison. They're coming back into our communities. They’re going to be taxpayers if we can get them jobs, if they can be able to contribute. So it's important that we have the right resources and programming available.”
ZZ: “The Department of Corrections is already quite cash-strapped. It says it's already lacking counselors and others to administer these programs. Does the department need to see its budget increased or do we need to reprioritize?
WB: Well, absolutely. That's a great question. Right now, the budget for the DOC is a billion dollars. Taxpayers pay more about $25,000 a year per inmate. And what I want to do in my legislation is, before we can fund the appropriate programs, we need to do an audit. We need to find out where they are able to spend money, what programs are working. We need to see how we can streamline some of their processes. It may be that they don't have enough money to do all the things that we are asking them to do, or maybe the opposite.”
ZZ: “So how long could inmates see knocked off of their sentences if they really go to work on these programs?
WB: “Right now that's a big conversation. So we have some folks that believe in truth and sentencing and think that the 85% rule should apply. We have some folks that think that we should look at 70% and some even go down and lowers at 60%.”
ZZ: “During your committee hearings, there was a lot of talk about other reforms: sentencing, minimum time served, probation after release. Can you or do you intend to tackle just this one area--early release credits--or is there just reform system-wide that needs to be had here?”
WB: “There is reform system-wide that we need to do. We have to take a look at the plea percentages that are going in. Look at the discretionary levels for judges. And then the prison system: do they have enough resources? Do they have enough money? Do they have enough personnel? Third is the wraparound services, the community outreach programs so when the person leaves prison, they have that support mechanism already there so they are not re-entering back into prison, for example because of probation technicalities. And I believe that a good earned release credit bill is basically the last thing that we have to write, because if I write a bill and we don't have the systems to support the bill, the bill is just going to sit on the shelf somewhere and it's a bail piece of policy.”
ZZ: “Well, if that’s the last piece, then why start with it?”
WB::Because we need to get all the information that's available. And just by having a hearing and having a conversation and having that space where people can come and talk about those issues. Having stakeholder meetings, we can finally get to a point where we're having a conversation that is being lit up on your show here and other shows across the state, and it will bring us to a point to be able to start to do some real meaningful work. I would have liked to have started this last session, truth be known, but this is what we got and this is what I'm working with. The earned release credit piece is, in my opinion, a small piece of the change that we need to make for criminal justice reform.”
ZZ: Representative Blackman, thank you very much for joining me today.”
WB: Thanks for having me, I appreciate you.