Rep. Blackman renews fight for change in sentencing laws

  • Home
  • News
  • Rep. Blackman renews fight for change in sentencing laws

Rep. Walter Blackman, a 22-year Army veteran, has been in combat. Any flack he takes in the Legislature, he said, doesn’t quite compare.

The Snowflake Republican is bringing this attitude into the forthcoming legislative session as he prepares to fight for a suite of bills that would reimagine how police treat low-level offenders and increase scrutiny over a state Corrections Department mired in controversy.

He’ll be entering familiar territory. Last session, despite being a freshman that came from relative obscurity in Legislative District 6, Blackman tried to get the Legislature to consider expanding earned release credits, making a name as one of the most committed in his party to remaking criminal justice. But he ran up against powerful opponents, namely House Judiciary Chair John Allen, R-Scottsdale, and Allen’s counterpart in the upper chamber, Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who in turn ran a successful bill offering a much milder version of Blackman’s change. Essentially every other revamp bill, Blackman’s or otherwise, died on arrival.

But change advocates say that the stars may be aligning this session for substantive changes to Arizona’s historically calcified justice system. Farnsworth and Allen are still in place, but the ranks of change-minded Republicans are growing, and old opponents like former Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery have moved on, in his case to the Arizona Supreme Court.

In addition, Blackman, while no less determined than last session, is coming at the next batch of proposed changes with a year of experience and the work of a sentencing reform ad hoc committee he helmed over the interim under his belt.

“I’ve talked to folks on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “Everybody has a take on what they like. Just doing earned-release is not the answer. We need a comprehensive package.”

The two bills at the spearhead of this comprehensive effort – aside from an expansion of earned-release credits, which Blackman is planning to propose again but hasn’t yet — are HB2069 and HB2070. The former creates an oversight committee that would “monitor, study and make efforts to improve transparency, fairness, impartiality and accountability in correctional institutions and facilities.”

In addition to its oversight role, which Blackman said would be advisory, the committee would also appoint an ombudsman responsible for “oversight of the department’s internal affairs and disciplinary processes.” The legislation empowers the ombudsman to oversee virtually any internal investigation at the department, including personnel investigations.

The bill comes after years of mounting criticism of the department and its leadership that culminated with the resignation of former Director Chuck Ryan in August. Recent controversies include reports of broken locks and widespread disrepair in Arizona State Prison Complex – Lewis that persisted even after Ryan retired. In December, an associate deputy warden at the Lewis Prison filed a whistleblower complaint with the governor and new agency Director David Shinn alleging that doors across the prison were failing at an “alarming rate” and that the prison administration was hiding that fact by fulfilling repair orders on paper without actually fixing locks.

In Blackman’s view, an ombudsman could be an impartial figure who could have raised the issue of the locks before a whistleblower complaint was necessary. That said, the bill will not make Blackman any friends at the department – for one, the department’s designee on the committee has no voting power. But Blackman said he’s never been one to back down from a political battle. “I see a problem,” he said. “It needs to get fixed, and we need to do it in a way that’s aggressive. We can crawl all day, but we’re not getting anywhere.”

A spokesperson with the department said that it does not comment on legislation, but did point out that the department recently hired a woman named Lynne Hilliard to serve as a staff ombudsman “to confidentially assist employees with questions, concerns, or problems that they may have.”

Blackman’s other bill allows local police departments to create pre-arrest diversion programs in which law enforcement officers can, at their discretion, give civil citations to a person who commits a nonviolent misdemeanor in lieu of filing charges. They would be required to report to a diversion program where they could receive education and behavioral health services in exchange for some community restitution.

It “empowers police officers to be mentors in the communities they patrol,” Blackman said. It’s likely that some officers do this on an unofficial, case-by-case basis, he said, but this would enshrine in statute the practice of connecting non-violent misdemeanants with social services instead of feeding them into the overburdened carceral system. That said, the program would have some caveats, aside from its voluntary nature. Namely, only those without a previous arrest – regardless of whether it led to a conviction – would be eligible.

Pre-arrest diversion and deflection programs are part of a nascent but quickly growing philosophy in American policing developed by groups like the Police, Treatment and Community Collaborative and the Center for Health and Justice.

These groups urge police departments and local governments to adopt programs similar to Blackman’s in which police officers connect low-level offenders to drug treatment or behavioral health services instead of arresting them or playing the role of a health specialist themselves.

Its arrival onto the scene of criminal justice can be traced to brewing concern over mass incarceration, the opioid crisis and racial disparities in policing, said Jac Charlier, one of the cofounders of the Police, Treatment and Community Collaborative and the diversion field.

“Officers are not clinicians,” he said. “Often times, they don’t know what else to do (other than make an arrest).”

Both bills are likely to get currency with progressives who are long frustrated with the Legislature’s slow movement on criminal justice change, even as the state has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country.

“We have nowhere to go but down in terms of the number of people we incarcerate,” Caroline Isaacs, program director for the American Friends Service Committee office in Tucson, said. “We’re open to any and all proposals. I think there are more stakeholders involved from both sides of the aisle than ever before.”

That last point is key. For example, the pre-arrest diversion legislation is an American Legislative Exchange Council model policy, an indication that national conservative groups like ALEC have in recent years warmed to the idea of change. And Blackman has allies in his own caucus, in addition to Democrats — people like Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, for example, who served on the ad hoc committee and who is open to “common sense” changes like diversion.

“I think there’s more and more desire to get this stuff done,” Toma said.

One reason for this is the tremendous cost of operating a prison system that gets over a billion dollars in appropriations from the Legislature. If policy changes can reduce the number of people going into the system while at the same time increasing oversight, the logic is that fewer taxpayer dollars should have a greater impact.

“The priority should be community safety, taxpayers and families,” said Kurt Altman, a former deputy Maricopa County attorney who now works on criminal justice change. “Save taxpayer money, keep families together. I think those are conservative ideas.”

Those who want change will also likely face less opposition from outside the Legislature. Montgomery’s replacement, Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel, has a good relationship with Blackman, who served on her transition team. And even if her office isn’t sold on Blackman’s ideas, a spokeswoman said Adel’s priority is handling the “operations of the office.”

“I don’t know if she’ll be as active (in the Legislature) as her predecessor,” spokeswoman Jennifer Liewer said in reference to Montgomery, who critics claimed exercised a sort of informal veto power over criminal justice bills.

Of course, that’s not to say that change will be easy. Even Blackman is skeptical.

“They probably won’t even hear my bills,” he said. “They’ll sit in a desk somewhere.”

Allen, whose Judiciary Committee would likely hear any proposed changes before the Legislature this session, declined to comment. House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who could send the Blackman bills to the Judiciary Committee or effectively kill them by sidelining them to the Rules Committee, did not return multiple requests for comment.

And there’s still the matter of other local power players hesitant to embrace change, like Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk and Steve Twist, a lobbyist and victims advocate who drafted the framework for Arizona’s criminal code in the 1970s and fought for changes like the 1993 truth-in-sentencing law, which requires inmates to serve at least 85% of their sentences.

But there may reach a point where support for change reaches a critical mass capable of overwhelming that opposition, said Marilyn Rodriguez with the progressive lobbying firm Creosote Partners.

“There’s a point where the dam breaks,” Rodriguez said.

That point may be nearing. In addition to growing support for change in the Legislature, the recent arrival of an earned-release ballot initiative backed by the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union and other progressive groups may increase pressure on lawmakers who don’t want to cede policymaking control, Blackman said.

“As a result of not doing what we should do, it’s on the ballot now,” he said. “We may get stuck with a product that we are not happy with.”

And the razor-thin majority Republicans have in the House may provide an opportunity for Blackman to apply pressure to get his bills through, though he denied that he would use strategies like withholding his vote on a budget proposal, for example.

Either way, change is Blackman’s signature issue, and he said he won’t be backing down.

“We have been put in place to do a job, not to occupy a seat,” he said. “Some folks get into office, get comfortable and don’t want to go the extra mile. But if I lose my seat, then I lose my seat. That means I need to step out in front of issues that are right.”



-Kurt M. Altman, PLC, is a former state and federal prosecutor and Alison Holcomb is director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.

This story was originally posted on the Arizona Capitol Times website.