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Arizona bill would give non-violent offenders ways to reduce sentences

(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

PHOENIX (AP) — An Arizona House committee has approved a proposal to give all non-violent state prisoners time off their sentences if they work in prison or take drug treatment or major self-improvement courses while behind bars.

Republican Rep. Walt Blackman has worked on the proposal for two years and has faced opposition from tough-on-crime lawmakers. But the legislation he crafted passed the Judiciary Committee without opposition Wednesday and now heads to the full House for a vote.

A bill enacted last year allowed inmates serving time only for drug offenses to serve 70% of their sentences. All other prisoners must currently serve at least 85% of their term under Arizona’s truth in sentencing law.

Blackman’s proposal allows non-violent inmates to earn up to 1 1/2 days credit for every six days served if they take the required courses or work while behind bars.

That means some non-violent prisoners would be able to be released after serving as little as 65% of their sentences.

Blackman said his proposal will continue to be revised as it works its way through the Legislature to address concerns. He says his proposal will boost public safety and cut down on the number of repeat offenders.

Democratic Rep. Kirsten Engel praised Blackman for his persistence.

“This is a reform that the federal government has made,” Engel said. “It’s a reform that so many people support, and it’s clearly something that is warranted and will help so many inmates and their families and society at large.”

She noted that it will be up to prisoners to take advantage of the program.

The Legislature may feel under added pressure to pass a sentencing reform bill after advocates for overhauling Arizona’s criminal justice system filed an initiative proposal addressing the issue Tuesday.

That proposal would cut the sentences of non-dangerous offenders to 50% if they behave in prison. It also would authorize the use of state revenue from medical marijuana sales to hire more substance abuse counselors for inmates.

The ballot measure backed by the Quaker group American Friends Service Committee-Arizona would go on the November ballot if backers collect about 237,000 valid signatures by July 2.

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