‘A clean slate is needed’: Arizona lawmakers urged to reform criminal justice system

Members of the Arizona Friends Service Committee and supporters of criminal justice reform are asking Arizona legislators to adopt changes that could impact voting rights, job seekers and housing. (Photo by Jonmaesha Beltran/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — Criminal reform advocates are asking Arizona legislators to change laws that keep hundreds of formerly incarcerated people from voting and getting jobs.

Dozens of activists reached out to lawmakers at the Arizona Capitol on Tuesday as part of a movement they call Reforming Justice, saying current laws hobble people who have already served their time for their crimes.

Clyde Hardin, 38, a tattoo artist who spent 10½ years behind bars for armed robbery, said he has applied for dozens of jobs. Time and again, the father of three marked the question on applications that ask whether he ever had been convicted. By the 89th application, he said, he lied to get a job bussing dishes in a restaurant.

“Every application they have to sign, they have that damn box. Every employment, every housing, they have that damn box. You have to strike it, you have to say, ‘Yeah I’m a convicted felon, but let me explain …'” said Hardin, who was one of several advocates who met with Secretary of State Katie Hobbs on voting rights.

Hobbs listened to Hardin and others discussed restoring voting rights, saying she appreciated their statements, but did not commit to specific action.

Advocates are pushing for the Legislature to model reforms after the Clean Slate Act, recently passed in Pennsylvania, that seals some criminal records.

Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, also plans to sponsor a bill to allow prison inmates to be released early from their sentences based on earned credits, according to Tiera Rainey, program coordinator for the Arizona branch of the American Friends Service Committee, which advocates for criminal reform.

Matthew Charles, a former Tennessee inmate who gained national attention when celebrity Kim Kardashian lobbied President Donald Trump to free him, spoke of trying to become a productive member of society and still having trouble finding a second chance.

Charles, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for a nonviolent cocaine conviction more than two decades ago, found a job, purchased a truck, attended church and volunteered.

“It’s no longer about rehabilitation, it never was,” said Charles, who became a librarian in prison and did other work. “That went out with the truth-in-sentencing act.”

He had been released from prison in 2016 but, nearly two years later, a judge forced him to return to serve out his sentence until Kardashian and other supporters lobbied for his release in December 2018.

Arizona passed its Truth-in-Sentencing Act in 1993, nearly a decade after the passage of federal laws collectively know as “truth in sentencing.” Arizona requires inmates to serve up to 85% of their sentence, according to an Arizona Senate document.

Hardin said being a convicted felon toys with a person’s humanity.

“You don’t feel that you’re enough, sometimes you feel alone. I had great parents, great friends, great family that all were there for me, to see me succeed. I still felt alone,” he said. “I can’t even fathom some days for dudes who don’t have that. My heart breaks for them, it just does. A clean slate is needed.”

Social Justice Reporter, Phoenix