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Lawmakers Put Crime And Punishment Under Microscope In Arkansas's Overcrowded Prisons

Sarah Whites-Koditschek
Arkansas Public Media

Arkansas has the fastest growing inmate population of any state nationwide, and it's forced the formation of a task force to propose reforms. Now that task force is asking for the policymaking powers of the General Assembly to achieve its aims.

Arkansas should move low-level offenders into community programs where data shows they are half as likely to re-offend, according to a consultant's report.

Board of Corrections chairman Benny Magness says the state has no choice.

“We have to do something, because we’re not going to be able to continue to build ourselves out of this. We have to continue to look at things. And we’ve been struggling with this for ten years, to find other ways to slow this population down.”

The task force has adopted a set of recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment Center, consultants that work with the Council of State Governments. The center suggests sending fewer low-level offenders to prison, funding more parole and probation case workers to help inmates soon after re-entry, and addressing the state’s mentally ill before they become convicts.

State Senator Jeremy Hutchinson chairs the task force. He's hopeful legislators will agree sentencing laws should be re-evaluated.

“Which crimes deserve being sent back to prison? Can we intervene at different steps along the way before we convert a screw up to a hardened criminal by sending them to the Department of Corrections?”

Instead, those low-level offenders would be given more help. The plan would cost almost $66 million dollars over 10 years. He’s not sure lawmakers will go for that but if they do, the Justice Center says there would be nearly 10 times as much in potential savings. 

Arkansas Community Correction would hire staff to help shuffle low-level offenders out of prison.

Credit Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Public Media
Policy Analyst Ben Shelor of the Justice Center presented Tuesday to the task force.

ACC spokeswoman Dina Tyler says they’d focus re-entry services in the early period when most people re-offend.

“Then, after that, the chance of them re-offending drops way off. So load those two years. Throw everything you’ve got at those offenders, that you think will help them.”

Whose sentences should be lightened? The task force is still debating which types of low-level offenders should be moved out of the Department of Correction but they agree on the general idea.

The Justice Reinvestment Center says leaders will be dealing with a 19 percent prison population bump by 2023 if nothing is done. It will exceed 21,000.

In 2015, $64 million dollars were allotted to address overcrowding at the state’s prisons.

The funds were intended to open 800 prison beds, hire 52 new probation and parole officers, and create alternative sentencing and reentry programs for some of the state’s roughly 2,500 inmates then held in county jails.

Dina Tyler says less than half, 209, of the 500 reentry beds funded in 2015 have been filled because of delays in establishing reentry centers. She says 100 percent of those participants secured employment before graduating.

Here is the list of recommendations approved by the task force:

1.) Focus supervision resources on people who are most likely to reoffend.

2.) Increase the availability of effective community-based substance abuse treatment and services.

3.) Reconfigure aspects of ACC’s residential facilities to ensure the effectiveness of services intended to reduce recidivism.

4.) Limit the amount of time people who have violated the conditions of their supervision spend in prison so that prison space is reserved for people who commit serious and violent offenses.

5.) Improve the quality and consistency of the parole decision-making process, preparation for release, and information sharing between Arkansas’s correctional agencies as it relates to parole.

6.) Revise the Arkansas Sentencing Standards to ensure that sentences to prison are reserved for people convicted of the most serious offenses or who have extensive criminal histories.

7.) Improve the collection of information related to restitution and access to compensation for victims of crime.

8.) Develop and fund strategies to reduce pressures on county jails, including specialized law enforcement training, screening and assessment, and diversion for people with mental illnesses.