Guest Opinion: Release Valve

There may be real hope on the horizon when it comes to criminal justice reform in Arizona

I've had a love/hate Relationship with Hope since the earliest, bleakest days of my 10-plus years of incarceration. When it felt impossible to get off my bunk, to stop wallowing in self-pity for the choices I'd made, Hope intervened and offered its hand. In those moments, Hope was my saving grace.

But other days, Hope was cruel and abusive. When I needed it most, it was elusive. It pulled me in only to push me away—a dysfunctional relationship that left me flirting with the same thoughts of self-destruction that first led me into the criminal justice system.

Hope was at its worst in prison when an online rumor found its mark, perpetuating the falsehood that Arizona's legislature was working to eliminate the 85-percent rule. That is, the law that, since the mid-1990s, requires every state prisoner—all 42,000 of them—to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, regardless of the severity of their offense, and despite voluminous evidence that long prison sentences do absolutely nothing to deter crime.

In Arizona's prisons, there's no reward for good behavior or incentive to change. There's no parole. It's one of the main reasons we have the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the U.S. and a correctional budget of more than $1.1 billion.

Hope has no reason to visit our state prisons. But once in a while, it sneaks in.

Every time we heard those rumors about the 85 percent rule—despite being burned so many times before—we wrote home, called our mothers and fathers and our significant others, and asked them to check it out. As we waited for word, we'd damn near sing and dance with Hope, work out with Hope, cook prison tamales in five-gallon trash cans with Hope. And then, predictably, our loved ones confirmed that Hope had let us down once again. There was no one on the outside working to make Arizona's sentencing laws fair and proportionate.

The thousands of incarcerated people and their families who have been through this so many times before have Hope fatigue. They're afraid to engage Hope ever again. It's dangerous. The disappointment is crushing.

So, to all those incarcerated throughout our state, and to their loved ones on the outside praying for relief, I do not make this proclamation lightly: This year, things are different. The talk of sentencing reform in Arizona is legitimate. Hope's potential reward is worth the risk.

Arizona's 2019 legislative session, which opened this week, promises a slate of criminal justice reform bills that can change lives, rebuild our communities—especially poor communities of color—and lead to greater investments in public health and education. In addition to legislative proposals that would expunge criminal records, automatically restore voting rights to those who've been in the system, de-felonize possession of drug paraphernalia, and restore some semblance of judicial discretion, there is what's currently known as the Just Sentencing bill.

Co-authored by American Friends Service Committee-Arizona (AFSC-AZ), based in Tucson, the Just Sentencing bill would reduce the 85-percent rule to 50 percent for people incarcerated for non-violent offenses, if enacted, and to 65 percent for those with more serious convictions—provided they participate in programming and exhibit positive behavior.

Passage of the bill would impact thousands, allowing those who follow the rules inside and pose little risk to the public to earn their way to release so they can rejoin their families and contribute to the economy. It would bring Arizona in line with other states who have passed serious criminal justice reform, including solidly red states that, as a result, have seen greater reductions in crime than ours. It would save Arizona taxpayers potentially hundreds of millions of dollars that can be re-invested in treatment programs, mental health, and improving education.

Most importantly, it would restore Hope to those incarcerated in Arizona—Hope that inspires change from within.

On Tuesday, Jan. 22, nearly a hundred formerly incarcerated people and their families will travel to the state capitol in Phoenix to participate in AFSC-AZ's ReFraming Justice Day—a day of activism, advocacy, and service on behalf of those still incarcerated, their loved ones and their children. Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black, will help tell the stories of those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system, and she'll use her celebrity to help lobby state legislators—along with those formerly incarcerated—to vote in favor of Just Sentencing.

It will be the largest gathering ever on the lawn of the state Legislature of people who are directly impacted by the criminal justice system. If that doesn't inspire Hope inside our prisons—and constituents across Arizona to write their elected representatives in support of sentencing reform—I don't know what will.

Passage of the Just Sentencing bill would be transcendent. It would not only give incarcerated people light at the end of the tunnel. It would also reinforce and enshrine our shared values: People can change. People deserve second chances. People deserve Hope.

Hope is a good thing.

Joe Watson is a former journalist and now the communications director for American Friends Service Committee-Arizona.

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