A report detailing economic benefits of proposed expanded earned release credits gives a look into a possible new middle ground in the debate on revamping Arizona’s prison system.
The report by Rounds Consulting Group analyzed the earned release credits proposal in the 2020 Second Chances, Rehabilitation and Public Safety Act ballot initiative, which didn’t make the ballot in November after it failed to get enough valid petition signatures.
The report found Arizona could save $1.4 billion in the first 10 years after enacting policy that expands earned release credits. The increase in state tax revenues due to the workforce growth resulting from fewer incarcerated people would contribute an additional $107 million, the report said.
Arizona currently has the fifth-highest incarceration rate in the country. In the report’s most optimistic projection, proposed earned release policy could reduce Arizona’s prison population by 22.6%. A conservative projection predicted a reduction of 17.8%.
This movement of people from prisons to the workforce would have an economic impact similar to 30 large-scale high-tech manufacturing businesses with a total of 15,000 new high-wage jobs, the report said.
The benefits don’t stop there. The report’s analysis didn’t factor in the impacts of more efficient uses of tax revenues and savings as a result of expanded earned release credits policy.
“Lawmakers are starting to think like business owners, and they’re thinking if we’re going to spend taxpayer dollars, we should at least get some taxpayer dollars back in return,” said Jim Rounds, president of Rounds Consulting Group. “So in this case, if we save a billion and a half, that’s great. What do we do with it?”
Reinvestment into things like infrastructure, education, economic initiatives and tax reform could stretch the impacts of earned release credit policy even further, he said.
Rounds said in discussions about prison restructuring, those on the far left prioritize social justice issues more than the economy, and those on the far right are concerned about bloated government and inefficient spending, so those two groups seem to be on board with expanding the release credits.
The report’s findings could appeal to the more pragmatic middle-aligned lawmakers who are more focused on balancing a variety of priorities, he said.
“We’re trying to show that there’s benefits that are significant, not just helping individuals get their lives back, but also helping to build the economy,” Rounds said.
Through debates over expanding earned release credit policy in Arizona the past few years, many bills have failed to gain enough support to move forward.
Under Arizona’s “Truth in Sentencing” law, people convicted of crimes must serve at least 85% of their sentences. The proposed earned release credit policy would have allowed people convicted of non-violent crimes to take one day off of their sentences for every day served and encouraged participation in rehabilitative programs.
Similar laws in other states also imposed minimum sentences in response to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which incentivized states to increase the time violent offenders spend in prison through federal grants, but Arizona was one of only two states that applied the 85% minimum across the board, not just to violent offenders.
Donna Hamm, founder and director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, said since the law was passed, smaller incremental changes to the criminal code have further lengthened sentences. Hamm said legislators are trying to increase the earned release credits in order to reduce the 85% requirement, rather than completely throwing out the current code and starting from scratch.
HB2713, introduced by Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, is a step in the right direction for loosening the restrictions in Arizona’s current criminal code, she said.
The bill would allow people with drug convictions to reduce their sentences by as much as 50% and people convicted of other nonviolent crimes by as much as 33%. The bill passed the House 47-11 in early March and is currently in the Senate.
“I think that it would be difficult for legislators to argue that 2713 is so wildly liberal, you know, let’s fling open the prison doors and release everyone type of legislation,” Hamm said. “I think it’s reasonable. From what I understand it has good bipartisan support, and hopefully it will also have the governor’s support if it makes it to his desk.”
Kurt Altman, Arizona state director for Right on Crime, said lack of education has played a major part in opposition to earned release credit policy. He said when lawmakers first come to the state Capitol, they have specific goals in one area and it can be hard to get educated on all the other issues they now have a say in.
“I always say it’s amazing how many people come in and say they’re fiscal conservatives but are willing to throw money after money after money at the prison systems in the name of public safety without really analyzing that,” Altman said. “If we’re really looking at this, fiscally are we getting a benefit out of that?”
Now, people are starting to realize there is a “human aspect” to revamping the criminal justice system, he said.
“I think people are starting to really realize, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, that on a human level, we can’t just turn [incarcerated people] loose and be like, ‘Good luck,’” Altman said. The proposed earned release credit policy would help provide the help people need after they leave prison, like treatment, housing, job training and education.
American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization advocating for peace and social justice, has worked alongside FWD.us, a pro-immigration lobbying group, on efforts toward restructuring sentencing laws in Arizona. Caroline Isaacs, Arizona program director for American Friends Service Committee, said the new report gives the state insight that hasn’t been widely considered before.
“Just a broader look at the economic benefit of people being free, that people are a resource that are crucial to our state, and if we provide them opportunities to just do what they already want to do, which is live their lives and get a job and take care of their families, then everybody wins, and to demonstrate that in real numbers I think is amazing,” she said.
She said more and more lawmakers from across the political spectrum have been speaking up about the ineffectiveness of the current criminal justice system, and she anticipates a change toward more policies like the proposed earned release policy.
“There has to be something better and it’s not a zero sum game,” she said. “It’s not like you have punishment or you have utter lawlessness, criminals running around the streets, like it is not that black and white, and there’s actual science and research and models for how to do this better, and everyone benefits.”
-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.