Top prosecutors oppose sentencing 'reform' proposals - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Top prosecutors oppose sentencing 'reform' proposals

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Posted: Tuesday, December 14, 2010 3:37 pm | Updated: 7:01 pm, Wed Dec 15, 2010.

Top prosecutors from the state's two largest counties are moving to kill some sentencing "reform" proposals before they have a chance to sprout.

Kathleen Mayer, the lobbyist for Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall, took a specific shot at a proposal by Rep. Cecil Ash, R-Mesa, to make it harder to label something a "crime spree" which requires judges to impose minimum prison terms. She told Capitol Media Services the plan would give criminals "another bite at the apple."

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery had his own objections to that element of the plan.

"No one should get a volume discount," he wrote to Ash in his own objections to the proposals.

Montgomery also chastised Ash, who chairs a special legislative committee reviewing sentencing laws, for proposing to give judges more leeway in sentencing those found guilty of possessing child pornography.

Right now, state law requires judges to impose consecutive prison terms for each item of pornography. That resulted in one recent case to a man being sent to prison for 200 years - 10 years for each of 20 items.

"Child pornography is not a victimless crime," Montgomery said.

Ash, an attorney and former public defender, said he is not making such a claim.

But he pointed out that someone who actually molests a child can get out of prison after 35 years. And murderers are eligible for probation after 25 years.

"Unless people want to say possession of child pornography is more serious, more harmful than murder, I think we need to look at our sentencing laws to make appropriate adjustments," Ash said.

The special committee Ash chairs did not vote on any specific proposal Tuesday, its last meeting, because a majority of panel members were absent. Ash said he will push the proposals on his own.

The overall theme behind what Ash is proposing would give judges more discretion in sentencing.

That would reverse a trend beginning in 1978 when lawmakers voted to impose mandatory prison terms for certain crimes. And in 1993 legislators approved a "truth in sentencing" law which says criminals must serve at least 85 percent of their term before being eligible for release.

The result, said Ash, is there are more than 40,000 people in state prisons, a figure he computed out to one out of every 170 residents.

"The problem with that is that the state is paying for that," he said. "The taxpayers are paying for that."

Mayer, however, said the proposal which Ash intends to introduce when the Legislature convenes next month goes too far.

"Rep. Ash wants a lot more judicial discretion on a general basis than prosecutors are comfortable with," she said.

And Montgomery said the laws on mandatory sentencing and minimum prison terms are necessary.

"These drastic changes represent a movement away from sentencing laws that have both lowered crime rates and honored the rights of crime victims," Montgomery wrote. "Changes such as the ones proposed in the legislation undermine public safety and could have very serious consequences for the state."

Ash, however, said other states have managed to alter their sentencing laws and also see a drop in crime.

Another target for Ash is an existing law that imposes mandatory prison terms on those who are convicted of possessing anywhere from two to four pounds of marijuana.

He said that might be appropriate for a member of a drug cartel. But Ash said it's just as likely that the courier is just some drug user willing to do the job for a "fix," someone who a judge should be able to place on probation.

Mayer said that ignores evidence her office has that these "casual" couriers are not harmless.

"The cartels are not doing our home invasions," she said. "It's our local traffickers who are engaging in smaller amounts - just under 4 pound range - where we're getting a lot of violence."

Mayer said there already are options for dealing with special situations like this, albeit not for the judges.

She said her office has the ability to put someone who is determined solely to be a drug user and not involved with other crimes into a diversionary program. There, the person would get counseling and help rather than being incarcerated.

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