Law concept. Wooden judge gavel,scales of justice and books on table in a courtroom or enforcement office.

State lawmakers took the first steps last week to reversing decades of tough-on-crime policies.

Without dissent, members of the House Committee on Criminal Justice Reform voted to restore some of the sentencing discretion taken away from judges more than four decades ago.

HB 2673 does not scrap all of the mandatory sentencing laws.

In order to divert from the code, a judge would need to find that a mandatory sentence would be an injustice to the defendant, that it is not necessary to protect the public and that the offense was not serious. Judges would have to explain their decision on the record.

Committee members also approved:

  Barring the state from denying certain licenses to people solely because they were convicted of drug offenses;

  Curbing the ability of prosecutors to “stack’’ charges from multiple offenses at the same time to get an enhanced sentence;

  Ensuring that female prisoners have access to hygiene products;

  Establishing an independent office of “ombudsman’’ with oversight over the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry.

Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, who crafted that last one, said that in particular is crucial to making changes in the prison system.

“This is the beginning of reform,’’ he said. “We can’t fix something if we don’t know what to fix.’’

The state’s policies on incarceration date back to 1978, when lawmakers voted to impose mandatory prison terms for certain crimes.

In 1993, they approved the “truth in sentencing’’ law which says criminals must serve at least 75 percent of their term before being eligible for release.

Freshman Rep. Joel John, R-Arlington, said he became interested in the issue after meeting a constituent who had served a mandatory two years in prison “for some petty crimes he committed because he became addicted to painkillers from injuries he sustained on the job.’’

 After release, John told colleagues, this man couldn’t find a job and ended up working on a farm for him.

“And there were people that spent less time in prison than he did for more serious offenses,’’ the lawmaker continued. “That didn’t seem right to me.’’

John said he sees no reason why a judge, who has met the defendant and examined the circumstances, should be precluded from imposing a sentence that appears more appropriate.

The measure also picked up support from Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer, who called it “good governance.’’

There’s also a financial component to all of this.

The latest figures show more than 37,700 people in the care of the prison system. And the agency’s current budget now exceeds $1.2 billion a year, more than 10 percent of every dollar spent to run state government.

“It’s a justice issue if we save some money that we can reinvest in making the community safe,’’ said Molly Gill, representing Families Against Mandatory Minimums. But Gill, a former prosecutor, said the focus should be on doing what’s right.

“Frankly, I got sick of sending people to prison who didn’t need to be there, and putting people there who didn’t need to be there that long,’’ she said.’’

Not everyone is pleased with the change.

Steve Twist, who was the assistant state attorney general during much of the time that lawmakers were tightening up sentencing laws, sent a letter to lawmakers expressing his opposition. He wrote that it would return Arizona to the days of indeterminate sentencing “which result in great disparity, inequality and injustice.’’

That did not impress Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Laveen.

“We live in 2021,’’ he said. “And the people of Arizona have consistently come to us, individually and as a group, and asked us to move forward on criminal justice reform.’’

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk did not appear at the hearing. But entered her own statement into the record in opposition.

Polk said if lawmakers are concerned about the sentences imposed the answer is to revisit the sentencing framework that judges have to work within, not giving them more discretion.

HB 2319 deals with the problems some released inmates have with getting a job. It says that, with only a handful of exceptions, a drug conviction cannot be a barrier to getting a state license.

“We know that employment is the key to breaking free of the cycle of people winding up back behind bars,’’ said Dianne McCallister representing the Opportunity Solutions Project. “But Arizona’s regulations should not be one of them.’’

McCallister said many jobs require state licensing, like working as a cosmetologist or at a pest-control firm, where a drug offense should not be a barrier.

The bill would not allow someone with a criminal record to get a certificate as a teacher, be in certain health profession jobs or certified as a peace officer.

The issue of HB 2318 is designed

to address situations where prosecutors “stack’’ multiple charges from a single event.

Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, got a similar proposal through the Legislature in 2019 only to have it vetoed by Gov. Doug Ducey. He said the language in this one is more of a compromise.

The measures approved by the panel still need to be debated by the full House.

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