Bills People Not Prisons Event|Photo by Jessica Swarner

Dozens of criminal justice advocates gathered at the Arizona Capitol Wednesday night to call for the passage of two sentencing reform bills. 

A crowd gathered outside the Capitol Wednesday night to take part in a vigil for loved ones they believe to be victims of a broken criminal justice system.

Participants in the People Not Prisons event, hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union, said they want there to be more ways for inmates to earn more time off their sentences. Organizers of the vigil and rally hoped the event would bring people together to share how reform would help their families. 

One way those at the event believe sentencing reform can become a reality is by getting HB 2753 and HB 2808 signed into law.

The bills take different approaches to sentencing reform. HB 2808 would allow inmates to earn more time off their sentence through self-improvement programs. Arizona is only one of three states that requires nonviolent inmates to serve at least 85% of their sentences behind bars. Other states have more lenient minimums, with some as low as 25% like Mississippi.

If passed, the legislation could affect more than nearly 11,000 nonviolent offenders currently incarcerated in Arizona, according to a senior policy analyst at the Justice Action Network

Darrell Hill, policy director for the ACLU of Arizona, said HB 2753 works toward the same goal but is “more expansive” than 2808.

“We support both bills because they are ways to decrease the prison population and extend earned release credits to more persons so they can have a chance to earn their way out of prison,” Hill told The Copper Courier. 

Jewel Valenzuela attended the event, and said she wants to see the bills passed so she can bring her son Frankie home and help put him on the path to recovery from drug addiction. 

“He’ll tell me himself, ‘Mom, you know there’s no rehabilitation here,’” Valenzuela told The Copper Courier. 

Other event participants talked of prison as a place rife with drugs and violence, meaning the less time their loved ones have to spend in there, the less time they have to relapse, or be hurt and possibly killed. 

The Arizona Department of Corrections, Reentry, and Rehabilitation said it provides inmates with substance abuse treatment “based upon need for treatment, risk to recidivate, and time until release.”

A spokesman for the agency told The Copper Courier that demand for these services does outweigh their supply, but money in Gov. Doug Ducey’s 2021 budget proposal will allow them to more than double their ability to treat those who need it.

At the rally, advocates handed out valentines with information on the bills to lawmakers and their staff members. 

After marching around the Capitol, participants also took part in a candlelight vigil, which included a reading of the names of those who have died in state custody in the past year. 

In 2017, Danielle Jensen’s brother Jeff died three months before his release date after being assaulted in prison. 

“We went from planning his reentry to planning his funeral,” she said during the vigil. “Until that moment, I truly believed he was in a safe place, getting help for his drug addiction.” 

Corrections officials need to focus more rehabilitation and preparing inmates for reentry into regular life, she added.

“I know my family will never get justice for my brother’s death due to the flawed internal investigations system,” Jensen said, “but what I can do is work to make sure this doesn’t happen to other families.”