My 14-year-old daughter, Jasmine, was taken by gun violence nearly 20 years ago. Her murder still haunts me, and I have done everything I could since then to see that no one else experiences a similar loss.
That’s why I was so disturbed to see homicides spike in Arizona last year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — up 43% in Phoenix, alone. While the increase is a national phenomenon, it is a signal that our state needs to revisit how it addresses crime and violence.
In recent weeks, bills that rethink approaches to public safety have been moving through the state legislature. One such proposal, Senate Bill 1064, is an expansion of earned release credits. This is a responsible approach that focuses our criminal justice system on rehabilitation and ending the cycle of crime.
For more than 40 years, Arizona has relied on a prison-first strategy to fight crime and violence. It did not protect my daughter, and it did not protect the hundreds of other homicide victims in our state last year.
That old approach prevents us from investing in strategies that are known to work better at interrupting cycles of crime and violence. With the fifth-highest imprisonment rate in the country, Arizona currently spends more than a billion dollars a year on prisons, with little focus on investing in crime prevention, rehabilitation or trauma recovery.
We can address this imbalance by increasing earned release credits for some incarcerated people. Research shows that longer prison sentences do not make people safer and are an increasingly inefficient way to spend taxpayer dollars on public safety. SB1064 would expand earned release credits for people convicted of some nonviolent crimes.
It would allow the opportunity for people to earn their way home by participating in rehabilitative programming that will help them reenter and succeed in their communities. SB1064 has the added benefit of saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade, and we can invest those savings into effective programs that support crime victims and reduce violence in our communities.
This approach would ensure accountability, while preparing people for a return into society.
Providing more incentives for people to participate in programming could also decrease recidivism rates and increase a person’s likely wages when they reenter their communities.
Estimates suggest these better jobs and wages could increase Arizona’s state tax revenue by more than $70 million over the next 10 years.
Especially at a time like this, when so many people and communities are suffering from economic, emotional and physical disruption, we should be focusing our resources on things that people need to be safe, like mental health support, substance abuse counseling, domestic violence intervention and community-based public safety measures. Those services offer real support to victims and survivors who have been directly impacted by crime.
With this approach — which has been successfully implemented in multiple states — we can help foster productive members of our community and improve safety throughout Arizona.
As a crime survivor, I want what happened to me to never happen to anybody else. Expanding earned release credits reduces the chances of someone returning to prison and prevents more victimization in the future.
If we learned anything from the tragedy of 2020, it is that public safety is not measured in prison beds and sentence lengths. It is measured by the well-being of its people and the absence of harm.
For our elected officials, achieving this kind of safety should be a sacred obligation — it’s the key to ending the cycle of violence and honoring those we’ve lost, including Jasmine. Deferring or delaying action on responsible criminal justice reform like SB1064 should not be an option.
Carol Gaxiola is a resident of Sahuarita and a member of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice. Visit cssj.org.