A Brief History of Arizona’s Sentencing Laws

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altDespite its persistent national reputation as a frontier outpost, Arizona has been on the leading edge of sentencing reforms that have contributed to a massive nationwide drop in crime rates.

The national sentencing reform movement was born out of a sense of frustration with the nearly unlimited power of judges to impose inconsistent and indeterminate sentences that were reviewed at periodic intervals by parole boards. Conservatives and liberals alike felt that indeterminate sentencing was unfair. Conservatives believed it led to lenient sentencing for repeat offenders, while liberals argued that indeterminate sentencing was arbitrary, capricious, and commonly had racially uneven results.

Beginning in the 1970s, states enacted a wide range of sentencing reforms that sought clarity and fairness in the criminal justice process. Broadly speaking, these reforms included setting sentencing guidelines, three-strikes laws, and mandatory minimum sentences.

Arizona’s sentencing reform movement had similar origins. Propelled by a coalition of liberals and conservatives, the state adopted a criminal code in 1978 with sentencing guidelines that specified minimum and maximum sentences for many felonies, as well as guidelines for aggravating circumstances like previous offenses and crimes committed on probation.

Since 1978, Arizona’s sentencing provisions have undergone some changes.

Arizona followed a national wave toward truth-in-sentencing laws. Arizona’s version, enacted in 1993, qualifies it for federal funding for prison building by ensuring that violent offenders serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, but extends further, to non-violent offenders.

Arizona’s reforms have also included a three-strikes statute that mandated extended prison sentences for three-time violent or aggravated offenders. This provision, enacted in 2006 (S.B. 1444), ensures that the worst of the worst criminal offenders are put behind bars.

Arizona also employs mandatory minimum sentences for offenses like drug trafficking, DUI, and many violent offenses.

Arizona’s drug laws have also been amended since the initial wave of sentencing reform. 1996’s Prop. 200 significantly lightened sentences for drug offenders by requiring probation and drug treatment for first and second time non-violent drug offenders.

Despite its bipartisan beginnings, and despite its similarity to federal sentencing schemes and those of other states, Arizona’s sentencing scheme has come under fire in recent years. But the facts show that Arizona is sentencing the right people to prison time, and that the state is safer as a result.