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Bipartisan criminal-justice reform bills working through Arizona Legislature

By Megan Cassidy

A package of bills that would ease the financial toll of low-level crimes on the poor has been working its way through the Arizona Legislature but remains in limbo as a key deadline approaches for lawmakers.

One bill would take a first step toward bail reform.

Another would make it easier for those with driving violations to get to work or school.

A third would give judges more latitude to reduce fees for indigent defendants.

The bills, part of a bipartisan effort, are regarded as the state’s most concerted attempt to date toward criminal-justice reform.

Support for them marks an about-face for many of the state’s conservatives, known for their tough stance on crime.

“I think Arizona as a whole has come to the realization that there can be a better way to protect the public and spend taxpayer dollars other than just warehousing people,” said Kurt Altman, an attorney for the conservative criminal-reform group Right On Crime.

Right on Crime and the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council have backed all three bills, which are sponsored by Republican Sen. Sonny Borrelli of Lake Havasu City.

On the other end of the political spectrum, American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona has supported the driving and mitigated-fees bills, while holding out for amendments on the bail-reform effort.

“Overall, I think it is a good package of bills that moves Arizona in the right direction,” said Will Gaona, policy director at the ACLU of Arizona.

A fourth, related bill that would allow competency hearings for misdemeanor defendants is on its way to Gov. Doug Ducey’s office.

The three others are in legislative limbo now. They have been passed by the state Senate but await a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. Their last chance for a hearing is next week.

The bills must pass both the Senate and House and be signed by the governor to become law.

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