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GOP lawmakers press bills aimed at reducing recidivism

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Two state lawmakers are aiming to reduce recidivism with bills to provide more support for prisoners transitioning back into society and to allow more monitoring for those found mentally incompetent to stand trial.

SB 1390, authored by Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, would expand the state’s Prisoner Transition Program, which teaches inmates nearing the end of their sentences skills including anger management, parenting and finding employment. In return for participating, inmates can be released up to 90 days early.

Pierce’s bill would require the Arizona Department of Corrections to place a minimum of 3,500 prisoners in the Prisoner Transition Program for fiscal year 2016 and 5,000 every year after. In the last calendar year, about 950 prisoners participated.

When inmates work as part of their sentence, 5 percent of their pay goes toward the Prisoner Transition Program.

“These are nonviolent criminals, and this allows them to go into treatment they pay for themselves,” he said. “It doesn’t cost the state any money and it lowers recidivism.”

In Arizona, about 38 percent of inmates released from public prisons in 2011 returned to one of these prisons within three years, according to the Arizona Department of Corrections. At the national level, approximately two-thirds of 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison, according to a 2014 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Pierce estimates the reduction of inmates’ sentences could save the state close to $100 million over 10 years, money he said could be used for education and other state needs.

Pierce’s bill received unanimous endorsements from the Senate Judiciary and Appropriations committees and was awaiting a hearing before the Rules Committee.

SB 1315, authored by Sen. Adam Driggs, R-Phoenix, addresses what many describe as a loophole in the state justice system: When someone is declared incompetent to stand trial because of mental illness or disability and can’t be restored to competency through treatment, the case can be dismissed and the accused let go without further action.

The bill would give counties the option of implementing a program to increase communication between criminal courts, prosecuting agencies and regional behavioral health authorities so these groups could notify each other an individual’s progress after a case is dropped. If the person stops cooperating with treatment or attending appointments, these officials would be able to intervene with the hopes of preventing an additional crime from being committed.

Recidivism rate in the U.S. and Arizona | Create infographics

When the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the bill on a 5-1 vote, Driggs said this problem desperately needs to be fixed to ensure the safety of Arizonans.

“This is an issue that I’ve been trying to deal with for almost my entire time in the Legislature,” he said. “When a dangerous person who has already committed a dangerous, heinous offense, but is not found competent to stand trial, their case is dismissed and they’re let on the street … I would like the state to step up and be able to monitor and know their whereabouts because public safety is one of the primary functions of government.”

Danna Whiting, Pima County behavioral health administrator, said during the committee hearing that there are plenty of shocking examples of how the loophole addressed in SB 1315 causes harm in the community.

“In 2014, there was a little boy who was repeatedly raped by his mentally ill neighbor,” she said. “The accused was found not competent and not restorable (to competence) … And to add insult to injury, the defendant moved right back in next to him. Because there was no conviction, he will never have to be a registered sex offender and no one is watching him.”

Whiting, who supervises the Pima County Restoration of Competency Program, said she sees about 40 to 50 percent of the defendants come back after they’ve been arrested again. These crimes could have been prevented if the mentally ill were better monitored, Whiting said.

“I know for a fact it’s happening everywhere and these folks are out among us,” she said.

Michael Shafer, board member at the Mental Health Association of Arizona, said SB 1315 misses many opportunities to improve treatment for the accused mentally ill.

“There are no clear uniform guidelines for the assent and treatment of competency and this bill does not address that issue,” he said. “The notion that an individual’s competency can be restored is a bit of a fallacy because there is no recognized practice standard of restoration of competency and that’s an area where some additional work should be taken.”

A similar bill that failed last session would have required counties to provide the monitoring, creating pushback on the cost for smaller counties. This year’s version gives counties the option of doing it.

Shafer said even with this revision the question of cost remains.

“One of the issues we struggle with in Arizona, since we have put so much of our mental health treatment dollars into the regional health systems, is ultimately who pays for that treatment,” he said. “There’s more than a little bit of tension between county court systems and regional health authorities.”

Kathleen Mayer, legislative liaison from the Pima County Attorney’s Office, said SB 1390 and SB 1315 could complement each other if they’re both passed because the former could help close the funding gap for the latter.

“Everyone is concerned about treatment dollars and we don’t have enough treatment dollars to go around,” she said. “The more money we save (by passing SB 1390), the more money we can spread out to help out a greater number of people.”

Donna Hamm, director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, said bills like these represent a change in the landscape of justice legislation.

“For far too long the state has been focusing on the punishment aspect of prison, to build plenty of beds and fill them and we haven’t been focusing on the rehabilitation part,” she said in reference to SB 1390.

“The focus is beginning to shift toward recognizing if we spend the money and effort on rehabilitation, it will result in a reduced need for beds,” she said.