A Voice for Victims of Crime

by Sheila Polk, Yavapai County Attorney

It was late evening. The middle-aged couple was watching TV in their Scottsdale home when two masked offenders wielding knives broke through a back door. As the husband valiantly fought with one, the second grabbed his wife and held the knife to her throat. The couple were then bound at the wrists and ankles with duct tape. The intruders demanded their jewelry, wallets, credit cards and pin numbers. Again, the husband attempted to resist until, again, a knife was held to his wife’s throat. Finally, the intruders stuffed the couple into a closet, mouths gagged, and fled the residence.

After several hours, the husband was able to loosen his bonds, then his wife’s, and call for help. Thanks to good police work and ATM photos of the criminals as they withdrew cash around the valley from the victims’ bank account, the two intruders were arrested.

The year was 1990. As a young prosecutor, I handled this home invasion/armed robbery of a Scottsdale home. My memory of the case has dimmed in the ensuing years, but one memory has not. The victims, terribly traumatized by the events, were relieved to hear the judge sentence the intruders to 15 years prison each. But then I explained to them Arizona’s sentencing laws.

You see, in 1990, defendants were eligible for parole after serving only one half to two thirds of their court-imposed sentence.

The victims’ emotions turned to disbelief, anguish, anger and finally fear and bitterness for a system where a 15-year prison sentence did not really mean 15 years.

In 1990, Arizona passed our Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights and in 1993 passed Truth-in-Sentencing laws. Since then, our system ensures that a convicted criminal serves at least 85% of the sentence, removing uncertainty about the actual length of time served.

The myth persists that Arizona’s sentencing laws take all discretion away from judges. The “truth” is that Truth-in-Sentencing offers judges a range of prison terms that can be imposed for different types of crime based on the severity of the crime itself. As a rule, prison is mandated only for the bad stuff — child molestation, specific sexual offenses, crimes involving deadly weapons or serious physical injury, major drug traffickers and DUIs. All other crimes are probation eligible unless the offender has a history of felony convictions.

Did you know that 70% of criminal offenders each year are sentenced to probation, not prison? Since 1996, treatment — not incarceration — is mandated for an offender’s first two drug use/possession offenses. As a result, 95% of inmates are violent or repeat offenders. Only 5% are first-time nonviolent felons.1

The connection between drug use and crime is dramatic. Illicit drug users are far more likely to engage in other criminal behavior. While only 9% of Arizona’s prison population consists of inmates whose most serious offense is drug possession, 77% have significant drug histories. Drug dealers, including those pedaling the deadly synthetic fentanyl, make up 11.6% of the state’s prison population. Of those, nearly one quarter are criminal aliens trafficking drugs in our state.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the first National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. Every year since, the United States has recognized one week in April as National Crime Victims’ Rights Week to bring awareness to issues that victims of crime face.

Every crime, whether an assault, burglary, theft or stolen credit card, impacts the victim and our larger community. Promoting public policy initiatives that protect the rights of crime victims, including truth-in-sentencing laws, serves to create safe communities for all.

1 http://azsentencing.org/images/docs/Prisoners-in-Arizona—A-2017-Update-on-Selected-Topics-2017.pdf