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Arizona senators bury home-arrest proposal

PHOENIX — Republican legislators are burying a proposal to help solve the state’s budget problem by letting some state prison inmates finish their terms in a home-arrest program, saying it would have threatened public safety.

They’re laying the blame for the initial proposal on Democrats who ran the Department of Corrections under former Gov. Janet Napolitano.

But in fact the idea came from former Rep. Mark Anderson of Mesa, a Republican lawmaker who left office when his term expired in January. He said on Friday that he made the proposal last year and had trouble getting Corrections Department officials to act on it.

Majority Republican senators pronounced the home-arrest expansion proposal dead at a news conference on Thursday.

The proposal would have saved a projected $22 million a year and screened out inmates who committed violent crimes.

However, a review of 300 inmates who purportedly met the eligibility criteria found 50 with troubling criminal records, said Sen. Jack Harper, R-Surprise.

Those included dozens whose records included drug dealing or trafficking, and Harper said some had convictions for burglary and alcohol-related offenses — 60 for one inmate.

“We are in an economic crisis, but jeopardizing the safety of our families and neighbors is not one of the creative ideas we are looking for,” Harper said during the news conference. The Republican chairmen of the Senate’s budget and public safety committees also participated.

Harper said the proposal apparently originated with the Department of Corrections under the administration of Democratic former Gov. Janet Napolitano.

However, a DOC spokesman denied that, saying that the department only responded to a legislative staff request for information.

Anderson told The Associated Press that the request originated with him and that he submitted it to House leaders last year.

“It came from me,” Anderson said. “I was trying to help them come up with ways to save money.”

Anderson said he worked with legislative aides to research and draft the proposal in 2008, including specifying what types of crimes would bar an inmate’s participation.

“When you have a budget situation like we have now and here’s a way to not only protect the public and save $22 million, it seems like a no-brainer,” Anderson said. “Of course, if you were releasing murderers and rapists back in the neighborhood, that’s something the public would not support.”

The Corrections Department “didn’t even favor it,” he said. “In fact, it took some arm-twisting to get information for me on how many would qualify. They stalled it.”

Harper also criticized Democrats for including the proposal in their own budget proposals.

“Their priorities are wrong for Arizona,” he said. “I don’t know how the Democratic caucus can stand by this idea and let people out of prison.”

A Senate Democratic leader said she and her colleagues copied it from Republicans.

“We wanted to try and be inclusive of some Republican ideas,” said Democratic Sen. Rebecca Rios of Apache Junction. “We’ve given them full credit — that is a Republican brain child.”

The proposal was included on a January list of budget-cutting options released by the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees, and a version appeared in a late March draft proposal circulated privately by House and Senate Republican leaders.

However, Senate Appropriations Chairman Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said he and his House counterpart included it in the January list only because of instructions to “put all the options on the table.”

It was as good as dead from the start, Pearce insisted during the Thursday news conference. “This caucus rejected it.”

The scuttling of the home-arrest proposal by Arizona lawmakers facing a $3 billion shortfall in a budget based on $11 billion spending comes as other states consider changing their crime laws.

“In the past, rising prison costs may have seemed like simply the price of protecting the public,” Alison Lawrence, a National Conference of State Legislatures analyst, wrote in a March review of crime laws and budget issues. “But many state leaders now are weighing the public safety benefits of certain policies against their costs. Approaches today often must meet the standard of both cutting crime and controlling spending.”

In one of the most prominent examples of budget-related changes to crime laws, New York earlier this month relaxed tough drug sentencing laws.

Rios, the Arizona Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said the home-arrest proposal seemed reasonable.

“If we’re looking at nonviolent offenses, folks who have not been incarcerated for any sort of sex offenses, violent offenses, that is a possibility,” she said. “I think it’s an idea that is worth looking into.”

Criteria for participation would have included only minimum- and medium-security inmates and only those without convictions for violent crimes, no prior felony convictions and within one year of release from prison.

Participants would pay a monthly fee, wear a tracking device and be subject to substance-abuse testing and monitoring by corrections officers.

Also, according to the January list’s description, the Corrections Department’s director would screen potential participants for “risk or danger to the community.”

The department now has a home-arrest program only for inmates convicted of offenses 15 or more years ago. It included an expansion proposal in a report responding to Gov. Jan Brewer’s directive for potential budget cuts.

The department projected that 629 inmates would be newly eligible for home arrest but that 189 — 30 percent — would fail under community supervision and return to prison.

The home arrest expansion was one of three criminal-code changes that the department listed as budget-cutting options. Others were shortening mandatory portions of prison sentences and placing inmates serving shorter sentences in county jails instead of state prisons.

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