Prison reform bill vetoed by Gov. Doug Ducey

Published: Jun. 10, 2019 at 6:57 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Governor Doug Ducey vetoed Senate Bill 1334 which would have reformed how first time offenders are sentenced in Arizona under the repeat offender law.

The bill had strong bipartisan support passing the Arizona House with 49 in favor and no opposition.

It passed the Senate 27 in favor and three against.

The governor issued this letter explaining his veto but did not explain what he meant by "unintended consequences".

That is explained in this letter written to the Governor by Pima County Attorney, Barbara Lawall, and Maricopa County Attorney, Bill Montgomery.

But those in favor of the repeal said they were "shocked and disappointed" in the Governor's veto.

One of those was Joe Watson, who believed with strong bipartisan support and a state legislature which has been leaning towards prison reform, he would see the bill through this year.

Watson, who spent ten years in prison as a first time offender, hoped to end what he sees as unfair because it treats first time offenders the same as repeat offenders.

"Ultimately I ended up facing 214 years in prison because of the stacking of charges using the repetitive offender law," he said.

He was sentenced to 12 years but only because he argued his case before a judge rather than accept a plea deal which would have given him at least 25 years in prison.

He believes the repeat offender law gives prosecutors a tool they can use to pressure offenders into accepting plea deals.

"I was threatened by a prosecutor with 35 years to life in prison for crimes in which nobody was physically harmed and no weapon was used," he said.

Since he was released two years ago, he has been working as a researcher in a small office at the American Friends Service Committee.

It’s a Quaker organization, which has as its goal to reduce the number of people sent to prison.

“Like me, the overwhelming majority of people incarcerated committed their offenses because of addiction,” he said. “That’s what we have to treat, behavioral issues, mental health issues.”

He says Arizona doesn't have a program inside the prison walls to deal with those issues and so the numbers rise along with the price tag.

"The Department of Corrections has the 3rd highest line item in the Arizona state budget," he said. "It receives more than $1.1 billion in taxpayer money every year."

Most states, he says, have mounted some steps towards prison or justice reform.

Arizona is late to the game.

It already has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the country and he says it's climbing.

“It’s non inconceivable that Arizona could top incarcerators in the country in no time at all,” he said.

The state had nearly two dozen bills introduced at the state legislature to deal with prison reform, but only two made it to the governor’s desk and one with bipartisan support, SB 1334, was vetoed.

But the setback may only be temporary.

“We have lots of folks who have rallied across the state around this legislation,” he said. “They’re disappointed. They’re frustrated. They’re heartbroken. We’re not going to quit.”

Copyright 2019 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.