THE 2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION
HB = House Bill SB=Senate Bill
To read the content of any bill, type "Arizona State Legislature" into your search engine. On the home page in the upper right hand corner, there is a rectangular box for bill number. Type in the bill number you wish to view. When it comes up, click on "documents" to view the original introduced version of the bill, and be sure to scroll down to examine and adopted amendments. If you see "engrossed" version of the bill, that means it passed its original chamber (either the House or the Senate) and will now move to the opposite chamber for consideration. If you continue to scroll, you'll eventually be able to see if the bill was actually passed into law and signed by the Governor. This would be the "chaptered version." If a bill fails during one legislative session, it does not retain its bill number during any subsequent sessions. If it is re-introduced during the 2020 session, it will have a different bill number.
Middle Ground was the only prisoner rights advocacy organization to testify in support of SB 1310. This bill allows prisoners to earn release credits at a rate that would allow them to serve 70% of the imposed sentence, as opposed to the current requirement for 85%. It applies only to those serving sentences for possession of marijuana, dangerous drugs, narcotic drugs or drug paraphrenalia. The prisoner must take a drug treatment program or "any self-improvement program," and must not previously have been convicted of a violent offense or aggravated felony. According to statistics provided by DOC, it affects anywhere between 1,100 to 3,200 prisoners. SB 1310 is being applied retroactively and became effective June 8, 2019.
UPDATE March 6, 2019: As of now, for all intents and purposes, HB 2270 is dead. It never got a hearing in any of the committees it was assigned to. The sponsor, a freshman legislator from an outlying county, did not recruit multiple sponsors, nor did he apparently consult with his caucus leadership. The bill was poorly written, too broad, too ambitious and sought too much. As noted below, stakeholders who are critical to any process by which actual major sentencing reform will ever take place were not consulted for input on the bill. Worst of all, many current prisoners and their familes were deceived into thinking that the bill, if passed into law, would apply retroactively (to those already in prison). There is and was no language in the bill that would make it retroactive and, frankly, we do not believe it is possible that any legislative body would pass what is essentially a new criminal sentencing code in Arizona and also make it retroactive. That is a pipedream.
There seems to be a staggering amount of mis-information floating around about this bill. Somehow, word has gotten around that House Judiciary committee chair Rep. John Allen maliciously substituted his own much more modest sentencing reform bill for 2270. But the truth is that Allen also didn't hear his own bill in his own committee because, like 2270, it was not well-written and had major problems with its proposed language. We don't believe there was a sinister conspiracy, as some have suggested, to subvert 2270. Instead, we don't believe that 2270 ever had any chance of passing in the first place.
Folks, major sentencing reform will not be accomplished just because prisoner families or ex-offenders think that prisoners spend too much time in prison and that their families suffer while the bread-winner is incarcerated. Remember, for each person incarcerated for a crime of burglary, theft, assault, robbery, fraudulent schemes, etc., there is a victim of that crime. Those victims have a constitutional right in Arizona to have a voice in the process. They may not be holding rallys at the Capitol or writing op-ed pieces for the newspapers, but you can be sure that they, too, are in touch with legislators. Sentencing reform will require input and agreement from victim's rights groups, prosecutors, judges, legislative LEADERSHIP (the ones who control which bills are heard in committees), the Governor (who can veto any bill he doesn't agree with which lands on his desk), and others. Sentencing reform will not occur in Arizona just because other states may have reformed their own sentencing laws. In fact, in our opinion and in our experience, Arizona legislators seem to resent groups from outside the state who come here and try to impose their views in our state.
HB 2270 proposed to require that non-dangerous prisoners serve only 50% of their imposed sentence. And that might be palatable to some people, including some in the general public. But it also proposed that dangerous prisoners serve 75% (supporters claim the bill proposed 65%, but the math included in the bill -- 1 day of release credit for every 3 days of incarcerated -- amounts to having prisoners serve 75% of the imposed sentence) and this is unlikely to be acceptable to the general public. We also believe that the vast majority of Legislators who must be re-elected to their jobs every two years, won't want to face an opponent in an election who might criticize them for voting in favor of early release of dangerous or repetitive (or violent or sex) offenders.
We believe that measured, incremental changes are much more likely to pass into law than sweeping, revoluntionary changes. In any case, HB 2270 is essentially dead for this session. And we are both heartbroken and furious that false hope was deliberately spread around by AFSC (American Friends) and others regarding retroactivity. Unless the language of A.R.S. 1-244 is included in any bill, it is NOT retroactive. Period. This language was not in 2270. Why would AFSC spread false info around? Well, it is possible that they know that the vast majority of people interested in taking time off work to attend rallies, call legislators, attend or speak at committee hearings, etc. are people who CURRENTLY are impacted by having an incarcerated loved one. Hence, supporting a bill that purports to have an immediate impact on their loved one's sentence if passed into law. Sure, there are a few ex-offenders who also are actively supporting sentencing reform. But the vast majority are families of current inmates. Can sentencing reform be passed retroactively? Realistically, no. Why? Because if you think about it realistically and logically, most prisoners are incarcerated as a result of a plea agreement, which is a CONTRACT between the state and the defendant. The contract calls for a sentence with a term of imprisonment that is governed by a set formula for earning release credits. If a victim is involved, that victim may have been consulted and may have spoken to the court to make comments about his/her agreement with the plea based upon an understanding of how much time the defendant would spend in prison. If that amount of time were to (retroactively) change, the victim might have a different opinion. And victim's in Arizona have CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS to be heard on all release decisions, etc. Second, the DOC has roughly 42,000 people in prison. If major sentencing reform were to pass retroactively, such as AFSC claimed about 2270, it would likely affect about 30,000 or so prisoners (immediately upon the Governor signing the bill). DOC would need a lot of money to quickly re-calculate thousands of sentences. They would need to be concerned about liability to the state if a prisoner was harmed (rape, assault, work injury, medical neglect) while awaiting the re-calculation of a release eligibility date that had already come due or passed. Other obstacles and challenges would apply because, remember, the bill would have to make the current sentencing code retroactive to January 1, 1994. .
Many, many of you have sent emails, called or contacted us on other forms of social media. Some have been angry, assuming we are "killing" hope and that we don't support sentencing reform. This couldn't be further from the truth and any suggestions in this light are patently false. No group in the state of Arizona has worked LONGER or MORE INTELLIGENTLY for prison/sentencing reform than Middle Ground (since 1983). What we are is: Truthful. Accurate. We believe it is utterly cruel to spread false hope, incorrect information and bad rumors and we simply won't stand by to let that happen when we have a platform (and a responsibility) to live up to our own expectations. If we are perfectly candid, we think the writers of HB 2270 went way too far to try to overhaul the entire sentencing code in Arizona. For example, even under the 1978 criminal code, there has never been a time in the history of Arizona's criminal code when any prisoner has EVER been released from prison automatically after serving only 50% of his/her sentence. But that is what a portion of HB 2270 does propose. Most sentences for sex crimes are flat-time sentences. Yet, HB 2270 is contradictoy in that regard because in one section it states that flat-time sentences are not impacted by the bill. In another section, it says that dangerous crimes against children sentences will be reduced to 85%. But most of them are flat-time. It is as though no one with a background in criminal justice sentencing actually read the draft bill. Yet, we were challenged by AFSC when we advised them of the problems with their bill by assuring us "we have consulted with licensed practicing attorneys and respected national organizations" (who vetted or wrote the bill). Hmmmmmmm.
BE AWARE: James Hamm is the only person in the state of Arizona who doesn't work for the DOC who is qualified in the courts as an expert witness on time computation with regard to Arizona's criminal code. We trust his expertise when examing legislative proposals that seek to alter the criminal code.
HB 2270 was not vetted with the necessary stakeholders. It is sponsored by just one lone legislator; a new legislator at that. It was assigned to two committees (plus Rules committee) which is usually the "kiss of death" to a bill. The writing, folks, was on the wall from the beginning that his bill was not going to be taken seriously by the leadership; not just by Rep. John Allen. Sentencing reform in Arizona is not going to proceed like it has or will in other states. As noted, calling in outside groups to weigh in and give their opinions about how Arizona should run its criminal justice system is never a good idea here. It is resented and mocked by legislative leaders; it is not revered as it seems to be by some who propose reform.
This information is not killing hope -- it is being utterly, stubbornly and completely honest. And that's what we will continue to be and do.
If you are a person who wants sugar-coated information, pie-in-the-sky 1970's rah-rah rallies, or other pollyanna slogans to make you feel better, ("We Got This") then we are not the group for you. MIDDLE GROUND means middle-of-the-road approaches which take into consideration all stakeholder's, including victims, into account when making proposals and suggesting solutions. We aggressively protect the civil and constitutional rights of prisoners, but respect and acknowledge the rights of others who also have a stake in the operation of the criminal justice system. We believe the sentencing code in Arizona is too harsh and that many changes are necessary, but we don't believe that sweeping, revolutionary changes which occur all at once are possible or practical. And we don't believe that our Legislature and our Governor (two extremely necessary components in the process of changing our criminal code) have given indication of support for sweeping change.
Someone supporting 2270 recently stated, "We weren't having any luck with incremental changes, so we decided if we're going to fight, let's have a big fight." Our question is: If you aren't getting anywhere with incremental changes, what makes you think that broad, sweeping ("big") changes will suceed? Those approaches may look good in the media and make everyone feel that they are fighting the right battle, but when the outcome is zero (no hearing at all in any committee on your bill) what have you achieved? The answer is painfully obvious.
Again, Middle Ground Prison Reform fully supports sensible, measured and incremental sentencing reform. That's what we will continue to work for.
To pass into law, a bill must be heard by two committees in its originating chamber (either the House or the Senate) and then, if passed out of those committees, it must be voted on and passed by a majority vote of the entire chamber. It can be amended along the way. Then, it moves to the next chamber where it is reheard in two more committees, with possible amendments added, and must be voted on by a majority of the second chamber, too. Sometimes, it has to go back to its originating chamber. Next, it goes to the Governor's office where it can be signed into law or vetoed. Citizens cannot introduce a bill; it must be introduced by a member of the legislature. Due to our Republican controlled House and Senate, a bill has a much greater chance of being heard in committee (and eventually passed into law) if it has multiple sponsors who are Republicans. Bills sponsored by Democrats only are rarely even heard in a committee, much less passed into law.
Now is the time to register to vote if you are not already registered. You should become aware of your two (2) state representatives (in the House of Representatives) and your one (1) state senator. These are the people that you should contact when we ask you to support or oppose a bill. You may think that your vote doesn't count, but that simply isn't true. It is important to vote and to keep your voter registration active so that you do have a voice in the way the government is operated in Arizona.
When dealing with state prison or county jail legislative issues, you have to be aware of the correct people to contact. Members of the United States Congress do not deal with individual state issues; for example, the U.S. Congress only deals with the Federal Prison (BOP - Bureau of Prisons). Most of the issues we deal with are state prison or county jail issues. So, if you are dealing with a state prison issue, you must contact the Governor and your state representatives or senator. If you are dealing with a county jail issue, you must contat your elected representative on the County Board of Supervisors. If dealing with a private prison, you must deal with the agency that contracted with that private prison in order to house prisoners for the agency.