By Jared Keenan
As Congress takes historic measures to reform our criminal justice system, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery is seizing upon this moment to push myths that created Arizona’s mass incarceration crisis in the first place.
Ob December 21st, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act into law. The Act is not without its problems, but it is a modest step in the right direction. The legislation includes several important reforms to sentencing laws that have bloated our federal prison population and added to the racial disparities in the system. The new language gives judges more discretion to reject mandatory minimums for people convicted of drug offenses while reducing the mandatory minimums for other drug offenses.
While this bill only pertains to federal crimes, the strong bipartisan support for the legislation will likely have a ripple effect on the way lawmakers across the country, including here in Arizona, address problems related to over incarceration. After all, the vast majority of people in prison and jail are in state and local facilities, not those run by the federal government.
Recently, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, an elected prosecutor who has major influence over who is imprisoned in Arizona, announced his support for the First Step Act. But, unfortunately, he was quick to criticize the parts of the bill that reduce mandatory minimum sentences and give judges more freedom to tailor a sentence to the particular facts of a case.
Montgomery claims mandatory minimum sentences put people on notice about the punishment that is linked to a particular crime. What he does not seem to understand is that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to justice.
Take Vonda Bennett, for example. Vonda is a mother of seven who was arrested for a violation of Arizona’s drug laws. Vonda had no prior felony convictions and the amount of methamphetamine she was carrying did not amount to a large dollar value, yet she was required to serve five years in prison because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
Vonda didn’t need prison, she needed treatment to overcome an addiction. And she had seven children who needed their mother at home. But because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the judge’s hands were tied.
Bill Montgomery supports mandatory minimum sentences because they take power out of the hands of judges and put it into the hands of elected prosecutors like him.
Bill Montgomery also falsely claimed the First Step Act mirrors what Arizona has already been doing to combat recidivism, the rate at which people return to prison after release.
In an interview with KTAR news, Montgomery said, “The emphasis on recidivism reduction programming is a direction that we’ve been talking about in Arizona for a few years now … so I think it’s a good thing for the federal government to follow in those footsteps.”
Mr. Montgomery, there is a big difference between “talking” about reducing recidivism and doing it.
In 2010, the year Montgomery took office, about 30 percent of people released from Arizona prisons had been returned to prison within three years. Seven years later, that rate rose to just over 36 percent. Montgomery was in office, deciding who to charge with crimes and what charges to bring against them, in Arizona’s most populous county during that seven-year period. He’s up for election again in 2020.
Montgomery is known for questioning the ACLU of Arizona and other advocacy organization’s statistics, so to clarify, the recidivism numbers cited above are taken from reports published by the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council, which is a lobbying group from elected prosecutors like Montgomery.
Arizona’s recidivism rate doesn’t differ widely from the recidivism rate of people in federal prisons either, so what is Montgomery referring to when he talks about taking steps toward combatting recidivism?
He might be referring to the Felony Pretrial Intervention Program, which he often touts to the media. This program allows people to earn a dismissal of their charges and avoid a felony conviction if they complete a cognitive-behavioral treatment program. Since the program began in 2015, only 262 people have completed it. That is hardly a drop in the bucket when considering how many people Maricopa County sends to prison each year – in 2017, Maricopa County sent 8,929 people to prison, according to a report published by Fwd.Us. The eligibility guidelines for this program prevent it from being a feasible option for most people who should be offered an alternative to prison.
Montgomery has aggressively fought against common sense, bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts in Arizona. It is telling that he only jumps on board now that Republican lawmakers at the national level, including President Trump, are rejecting the myth that mass incarceration keeps our communities safer and taking a smarter approach to justice.
If Montgomery wants to applaud justice reform efforts at the federal level, he cannot do so while falsely claiming that Arizona is a shining example of success. With the fourth highest incarceration rate in the nation, we are quite the opposite and have a long way to go.
Jared Keenan is a Criminal Justice Staff Attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
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