Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation loosening sentencing requirements for drug possession but vetoed a bill that would have barred prosecutors from designating people who have never been convicted of a crime as repeat offenders, dealing a final blow to a criminal justice reform movement that saw its high hopes for the 2019 legislative session dashed repeatedly.

State law allows prosecutors to charge a suspect who is accused of committing multiple crimes as repeat offenders, even if they have never been convicted of a felony offense. The repeat offender designation carries harsher penalties.

Senate Bill 1334 would have prohibited prosecutors from using that practice. Under the new law, prosecutors may only charge someone as a repeat offender if he or she has been previously convicted of a felony.

County attorneys from around the state opposed SB1334, including Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery. Throughout the legislative session, criminal justice reform advocates decried Montgomery’s hardline approach and the substantial influence he wields over Republican lawmakers on such matters.

Ducey wrote in his veto letter that he had concerns “with the unintended consequences that may arise… and the affect these changes would have on victims.”

Though he has championed anti-recidivism measures, Ducey has expressed skepticism about broader  justice reform proposals. At the start of the legislative session, Ducey said Montgomery would be one of several people he would consult with on any criminal justice reform legislation that reached his desk.

Ducey on Friday did sign Senate Bill 1310, which reduces Arizona’s strict sentencing requirements for people who have only been convicted of drug possession. Arizona’s “truth in sentencing” law mandates that people serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. The requirement eliminates parole, though inmates can serve out the last 15 percent of their sentences on community supervision.

SB1310 would reduce that 85-percent requirement to 70 percent for drug possession offenses. To be eligible for release after serving 70 percent of a sentence, an inmate must have completed a drug treatment program or other “self-improvement program” provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Ducey wrote in a signing letter for SB1310 that the “Department of Corrections should be about corrections,” and praised the bill for “encouraging non-violent drug offenders to seek help and earn their way to an earlier release and a successful second chance.”

According to the Department of Corrections, only 3,817 inmates are currently serving prison sentences for drug offenses only. In October 2018, the last month for which statistics are available, there were more than 42,000 inmates in Arizona prisons.

The law goes into effect immediately and retroactively applies to people who are currently serving sentences for drug possession. 

The two bills represent the few gains made by the criminal justice reform movement, which entered the 2019 legislative session with high hopes on issues like sentencing reform, criminal record expungement and “ban the box” legislation. But that ambitious agenda was largely blocked by Rep. John Allen and Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, who chair the judiciary committees in the House of Representatives and Senate, as well as by opposition from outside critics, most notably Montgomery.

 

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that SB1310 is not retroactive. 

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