By John Moritz
Using information gathered by a task force studying growth in Arkansas’ prison population, lawmakers Tuesday introduced a 46-page bill proposing new methods of handling misbehaving parolees and the mentally ill.
The two lawmakers who sponsored the Criminal Justice Efficiency and Safety Act of 2017 said the measure would provide more alternatives to prison and jail while avoiding the need to build a prison to handle the burgeoning population.
The elements of the legislation were formulated from the final recommendations approved by the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force in December. The task force spent more than a year and a half in its study. The co-chairman of the task force, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, and Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, are sponsors of Senate Bill 136.
Those proposals include limiting the amount of time parole and probation violators spend locked up and where they go. The law also would make judges who divert from sentencing guidelines more subject to appeals in which they have to explain their reasoning.
Under the current system, parole or probation violators can be returned to prison to serve the rest of their sentences, or, because of overcrowding, supervising officers can choose to let them off with a warning.
Hutchinson said the new law would require violators be sent to community correction facilities for stays between 40 and 180 days for any infraction — including a failed drug test. But supervisors could not revoke a violator’s parole until after the third offense, or if they commit a new felony or violent misdemeanor.
The legislation would provide for police training to deal with the mentally ill and the construction of crisis-stabilization centers to house such offenders. The funding for both proposals is included in Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s budget for the 2018 fiscal session. The governor is the uncle of Sen. Hutchinson.
Consisting of lawmakers, prosecutors, judges, prison administrators, police and other officials, the task force was formed in April of 2015 by Act 895 that year to “implement wide-ranging reforms to the criminal-justice system.”
The Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national policy group, sent advisers across the state and helped develop the recommendations approved by the task force.
Arkansas’ prison population grew faster than any other state in the nation, between 2012 and 2014, the Justice Center found, after lawmakers imposed tougher penalties for parole violators.
Sen. Hutchinson said the bill would help offenders — especially the mentally ill — “avert the crisis” of prison, get treatment or counseling, and reduce crimes.
While the task force’s recommendations have been embraced by county judges, sheriffs and quorum courts, skepticism has been expressed by prosecutors, including those on the committee.
After filing the legislation Tuesday afternoon, Hutchinson, Tucker and Justice Center researchers met with members of the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association in an attempt to ease concerns.
Hutchinson said the Senate Judiciary Committee’s consideration of the legislation could be delayed in order to have more meetings with prosecutors about the proposal.