Arizona criminal justice reform effort seeks reduced sentences for non-violent offenders

Second Chances, Rehabilitation and Public Safety Act aims for November ballot status

Posted 2/25/20

Michael Perrino knows first-hand the power of regret, rehabilitation and forgiveness.

From about 2008 until 2017, Mr. Perrino’s son, Zachary, was imprisoned first for the unlawful use of a …

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Arizona criminal justice reform effort seeks reduced sentences for non-violent offenders

Second Chances, Rehabilitation and Public Safety Act aims for November ballot status

Arizona has become a focal point of conversation around the imprisonment of American citizens and the role sentencing requirements play in the disruption of the lives of non-violent offenders.
Arizona has become a focal point of conversation around the imprisonment of American citizens and the role sentencing requirements play in the disruption of the lives of non-violent offenders.
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Michael Perrino knows first-hand the power of regret, rehabilitation and forgiveness.

From about 2008 until 2017, Mr. Perrino’s son, Zachary, was imprisoned first for the unlawful use of a motor vehicle then in 2010 for conspiracy to commit organized retail theft.

“The grand dollar total? It was $200,” said Mr. Perrino of charges sending his son to Arizona prison for a total of seven years.

“The description is something you would see a part of organized crime or something. I have $200 in my pocket right now. It was nothing. There are sentences of minimum and maximums and the judiciary cannot exercise any kind of discretion within those guidelines.”

But the truth was, at the time, this was Zachary Perrino’s second serious run-in with police --- the first, taking a family member’s car without permission --- and these charges taken consecutively resulted in the threat of a hefty prison sentence, legal battle or plea bargain.

“I had told him that once he was incarcerated again, he and I were done and I would never go back on my word,” Mr. Perrino recalled of the difficult time in his life. “He was just not in the right mental position to accept responsibility for what he did.”

--- Michael Perrino

Mr. Perrino’s son took a plea bargain and spent 2010 to 2017 at the Kingman Prison, which has been operating since 2004 with a capacity of just over 3,500 inmates.

“For his first time, he served about 1.7 years, just over a year and a half,” Mr. Perrino said. “Upon his first release he was challenged with the fees and costs of being incarcerated because the accountability, the punishment doesn’t end once you are released.”

Mr. Perrino’s son had a substance dependency and over the years, Mr. Perrino contends, he came to terms with the science of addiction and the business of the United States justice system.

“He wrote me,” Mr. Perrino said of his son trying to make contact during his prison sentence at Kingman Prison.

“Time goes on and about two months prior to his release, he wrote me again. He had taken college courses over the time he was there, had helped mentor other inmates --- and most importantly --- he had been sober for two years. Clean. It is possible to get drugs in prison, and for me, this was quite an accomplishment.”

Today, Mr. Perrino’s son has escaped the vicious cycle, is sober and maintains gainful employment here in the Valley the Sun; however, Mr. Perrino has become a proponent of a statewide referendum effort to increase earned-release credits to non-violent offenders serving sentences in Arizona prisons.

Up until a few years ago, Mr. Perrino’s son was a part of what he described as a startling reality.

“These are things I was completely unaware of. We have the fourth-highest rate of incarceration in the country. We spend $1.2 billion a year on keeping people in prison,” he said of what he learned of the for-profit prison system prevalent in Arizona.

--- Michael Perrino

“I educated myself on the rights of prisoners and for-profit prisons. The illogical thinking around sentencing. It really is for non-violent offenders and what a shock that the vast majority of the prison population are non-violent offenders.”

Today, Mr. Perrino contends, life is picture-perfect, but he says he wonders if there were more avenues for rehabilitation instead of incarceration would his son have spent so many years in prison?

Second chances and rehabilitation

On the 19th floor at 2800 N. Central Ave. is where Roopali Desai, an attorney who specializes in election law at Coppersmith Brockelman Lawyers, is spearheading the “Second Chances, Rehabilitation and Public Safety Act.”

The campaign is funded by the Alliance for Safety and Justice Action Fund, records show.

The effort seeks to expand the existing earned-release credit program for good behavior, which equates to the creation of judicial discretion in sentencing cases where nonviolent offenders are involved.

Technically, the act would amend state statutes affecting sentencing guidelines, establish a victim and first responder support services fund and transfers unused medical marijuana funds --- in the amount of $5 million --- to fund the program and establish the victim-services program.

“It is a moderate criminal justice reform measure,” Ms. Desai said of the bill she wrote.

“What we have done, is a group of individuals and entities started to look at addressing legislative criminal justice reform --- they ultimately don’t do much. But Arizona and American voters are hungry for criminal justice reform.”

But first, a total of 237,645 signatures of voters need to be delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office by July 2.

“We are the fourth-largest prison population and here in Arizona we spend a billion dollars on housing those people every year,” Ms. Desai said, pointing out Arizona is the only state of the union that charges marijuana possession as a felony.

“We tried to put together a policy that is limited in scope and can lead to future incremental change of the Arizona criminal justice system,” she said. “Prisoners will have the ability to get out sooner if they can show they are ready and able to be reintegrated into the community.”

Today, Arizona non-violent offenders in prisoner can work toward getting 15% of their total prison sentence taken away for good behavior. The act would change to say prisoners can earn an earned-release credit a day for every day served, while today the provision allows for credits to accrue every seven days.

“Today, you can only earn 15% off of your sentence and it’s hard to get people to buy into that,” Ms. Desai explained. “Only certain people are eligible --- we hope that reduces the number of nonviolent people in the pipelines of prison over time.”

--- Roopali Desai

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are 62,000 people behind bars in Arizona as of 2018 and the state has an incarceration rate of 877 per 100,000, which includes people housed in prisons, jails, immigration detention and juvenile justice facilities.

The Arizona Department of Corrections report as of July 2019 it has just over 41,000 people a part of its jail and prison system.

A second keystone item to the Second Chances, Rehabilitation and Public Safety Act is offering Arizona judges more discretion when imposing sentencing. Today, judges are very limited in the discretion of sentencing terms, Ms. Desai says.

“You hear judges say all the time, ‘my hands are tied,’” she said pointing out the stacking of charges prevalent today in the American justice system. “At the end of the day, you have three felonies for that one incident and you are going to go to prison for 17 years. We all at the table say, ‘that is just crazy.’”

The idea is judges can have the levity to reduce sentence structures to not attach multiple felonies to one incident --- a typical practice, Ms. Desai says of Arizona prosecutor offices.

The final piece speaks to the establishment of a Victim and First Responder Support Services Fund that would be seeded with a $5 million, one-time allocation of medical marijuana funds available at the state capitol.

“We wanted to make sure we looked at victim services,” Ms. Deasai said pointing out rehabilitation is a wrap-around approach to all involved, most importantly the victims of crime.

“We don’t really define it very well and we don’t have those wrap-around services --- wanted to make sure we are paying attention to that and it will be initially funded with medical marijuana funds.”

A social justice pursuit

Caroline Isaacs, program director of the American Friends Service Committee office in Tucson, says her organization is in support of the Second Chances, Rehabilitation and Public Safety Act.

“I personally have been working on this issue for more than 20 years,” she said. “It has been an interesting evolution as early on it was about reducing the size and scope of punishment --- it really began with putting out the fires of having so many people incarcerated.”

American Friends Service Committee --- a charity entity based in Philadelphia --- lauds itself as a Quaker organization devoted to service, development, and peace programs throughout the world.

Ms. Issacs says she too agrees Arizona voters are eager to see tangible criminal justice reform.

“One of the reasons we are pursuing this is because reform has been stalled at the Legislature,” she said. “They have been so reluctant to do any of this at the state level despite other conservative states already taking action.”

Ms. Issacs points out Arizona has some of the stiffest sentencing rules in the nation.

“People understand the system is broken,” she said. “The voters of the state are calling for a change to these issues. Policy changes at the ballot may be able to show there is a demand for this and the people of Arizona want something done about this.”

--- Caroline Isaacs

Ms. Isaacs says in Arizona, everyone knows someone or has a family member touched by substance abuse and imprisonment.

“We work with a lot of directly incarcerated people and the majority of people here in Arizona are affected by this. I don’t know if our elected leaders really understand how many people are impacted by this. They know that what we are doing is not working and it is a haven for an adverse, impact on people.”

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