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Tara Jackson, Arizona Town Hall's president, holding up a booklet outlining the highlights of her organization's findings.

Criminal justice, an issue that touches many lives in Yuma and around the country, was the subject of a report by Arizona Town Hall that was presented at a Southwest Arizona Town Hall, or SWATH, meeting Tuesday.

The report is the result of a process that began with locales around the state holding town halls and gathering input from community members. 

“(October’s) was our 19th town hall, and it was our most emotional town hall,” said Shelley Mellon, owner and broker at R.L. Jones Insurance Services and committee member at SWATH. “We were really surprised by that, after that experience, whether it was in the Q&A or it was in the discussion groups, but it was really informative.” 

That information was then taken to a statewide town hall.

Afterward recommended actions were drafted for governments, individuals and businesses to help ease some of the many problems the state’s criminal justice system faces.

Included in these problems are a rising prison population, lack of mental health resources and high recidivism rates.

According to data from the Census Bureau and the Arizona Department of Corrections, the growth in Arizona’s prison population has significantly outpaced that of its general population for the last few decades. In addition, 18 percent of people released from prison will return in less than six months.

“Those returning to society after prison often lack the resources to establish themselves in the outside world,” reads a booklet from Arizona Town Hall on the subject.

Some of the goals and recommendations in the report were to make sure that consequences were proportional to the crime committed, to focus on “key areas of prevention, rehabilitation and reducing recidivism,” improving resources in rural communities, encouraging family visits in prison, improving reentry programs and the expansion of mental health resources both in and out of prison.

Increasing diversion, a program in which defendants avoid a conviction by going through rehabilitation, and training for judges, law enforcement and others on how to handle mental health issues were also recommended. 

Experts from different areas of the field presented during Tuesday’s meeting, including Lance Hetmer, Warden of the Arizona State Prison Complex in Yuma.

Hetmer spoke at length about some of the issues that the Department of Corrections has been facing, including recruitment and retention of qualified personnel to staff prisons. Their annual turnover rate is currently at over 70 percent.

The department has over 9,500 positions, with over 1,100 of them currently vacant.

“Part of that, and I guess we can discuss it in further detail later is the competition (with) other agencies,” said Hetmer during Tuesday’s meeting. “The pay scale for the Department of Corrections is pretty much below most of the other major agencies in the state, and what we end up doing is we become a training ground for other agencies.”

The Arizona Department of Corrections has also taken on the ambitious task of reducing Arizona’s nearly 40 percent three-year recidivism rate by 25 percent over the course of a year.

Another expert present was Yuma County Public Defender Michael Breeze, who spoke in support of easing mandatory minimums and giving judges more discretion in sentencing. 

“Some of the philosophical blinders (are that) people are committed to what they think is law and order, ‘we just gotta put these guys away for as long as we can,’ and that trying to provide services to these individuals is soft,” said Breeze. “That’s just not the right thinking, (but) there’s a lot of people that are stuck in that mindset. (What we need to do) is move those individuals from that mindset, to the mindset where we’re all on this planet together, we’re in the same boat.”

With respect to specific suggestions, I suggest that everybody support people that are working for sentencing reform. Let your legislators know that there’s a groundswell behind it.”

Breeze also mentioned that he liked the recommendation made in the report of creating a statewide task force to work out “best practices” for diversion, “problem-solving” courts that attempt to address the root of criminal behavior and re-entry after prison time. 

He also praised the use of special courts, such as drug courts, where prison time can often be avoided, and rehabilitation is a much more likely outcome.

Sandi Hoppough, chief probation officer at Yuma County Adult Probation, also presented and talked about reducing some of the risks associated with criminal behavior.

“The recommendations that I found were most relevant from the town halls, for me, it’s always about risk reduction,” she said, adding that risk of recidivism isn’t the only thing to worry about. “Risk of following the wrong crowd, risk of falling into addiction, risk of committing, risk of committing that first crime, risk of recidivism is a huge one but risk of violence and risk of victimization is all about reducing risk.” 

To take a look at all of the recommendations made by Arizona Town Hall, visit bit.ly/2JGdsJn.

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