Bill Montgomery: Arizona’s criminal justice system has much to admire

Criminal Justice Policy

This article appeared in the Arizona Daily Star on

In his column, “On prisons, Gov. Ducey lacks ambition for real reform,” Tim Steller fails to properly account for how Arizona administers our criminal justice system and ignores history, especially when discussing the impact of truth in sentencing, determinant sentencing and in comparing what other states are doing to catch up to Arizona.

Truth in sentencing is a requirement that those who have committed an offense finally resulting in a prison sentence must serve at least 85 percent of their term. That predictability helps further stated purposes of Arizona’s criminal statutes: to give fair warning and promote truth and accountability.

Arizona’s determinant sentencing framework promotes certainty for victims and offenders alike, ensuring that prison sentences reflect the nature and circumstances of the crime committed, the criminal history of the offender and the harm done to our communities. As of December, the Department of Corrections reports, 73.6 percent of inmates have current or prior violent felony convictions.

How many felonies does someone have to commit before we say they have had their second/third/fourth chance? Since Arizona law permits probation for all but a handful of first-time felonies, you have to be committed to a life of crime to go to prison in Arizona.

There’s nothing Draconian in carrying out government’s first duty of protecting citizens, and our sentencing structure is not a consequence of a 1990s rhetorical flourish. Our current sentencing framework was passed in 1977, when the Arizona Senate was controlled by democrats under Gov. Bruce Babbitt.

The previous indeterminate sentencing scheme permitted judges unfettered discretion, resulting in gross inconsistencies across the state. These harsh lessons formed a reasoned approach to sentencing with consistent judicial decision making and in agreement with the public’s wishes. With historic lows in crime, we should be extremely cautious about tinkering with a system that has worked, though there is more we can do to make it more effective.

When it comes to highlighting recent actions in other states, Mr. Steller fails to consider what Arizona has already done, and does not acknowledge that crime is local with local factors calling for local approaches and solutions that can be different than other states. As for Mississippi and Louisiana, the policy idea of violent offenders serving a minimum of 50 percent and non-violent 25 percent of their punishment and the idea of increasing the opportunity to earn more early release time by incentivizing participation in programming are ideas that have been tried in Arizona prior to 1995.

They were abandoned because they did not work for Arizona. When comparing the criminal justice reform package passed in Louisiana in 2017, we’ve been there and done that. For example, Arizona raised the $500 felony theft threshold to $1,000 in 2006 and we raised the felony criminal damage threshold to $1,000 in 2009. We’ve also required drug treatment and prohibited incarceration for the first two drug possession/use offenses since 1996.

Furthermore, Arizona has already adopted a graduated intervention policy for those who violate conditions of release from prison. The Arizona way of administering a criminal justice system is slowly becoming the American way.

What can and should Arizona do next? Implement Gov. Doug Ducey’s call for reducing recidivism.

By administering cognitive behavioral therapy programs and substance abuse treatment at the point of admission into Arizona’s prisons in conjunction with job training centers and reentry support, we can reduce the number of offenders who would otherwise return to prison and reduce our prison populations over time without endangering public safety.

Then, we can watch other states adopt the Arizona way over the next 20 years, again.