Analysis: Hutchinson Shifts Justice Reform, Prison Overcrowding Debate to Sentencing Rules


By Andrew DeMillo

Facing an exploding prison population that threatens to bust Arkansas’ budget over the next decade, Gov. Asa Hutchinson is asking lawmakers to take a new look at sentencing guidelines that he says are “out of whack.”

The Republican governor isn’t the first to try to tackle the issue, but he won’t be a newcomer to the fight, either.

Hutchinson told a task force last week that he wants it to take a new look at the non-binding guidelines judges use while issuing sentences, arguing that they’re not being followed closely enough and are contributing to prison overcrowding.

“It’s my impression that our guidelines have little teeth, are weakly being followed and don’t carry the weight they should,” Hutchinson told members of the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force. “To me, you either need to abolish the sentencing guidelines and say we’re not going to have those or give them some real meaning and teeth. That’s the way you correct the system at the beginning and to eliminate some of the disparities that we see in our sentencing.”

Hutchinson’s call comes as the state is still grappling with its ballooning prison system. More than 1,600 state inmates are being housed in local jails around Arkansas. State lawmakers approved a $33 million plan this year aimed at easing that overcrowding, and Hutchinson also has tapped money from the state’s reserve funds to open additional beds.

But an outside group studying Arkansas’ prison overcrowding says the costs could balloon even further over the next decade. Andrew Barbee, research manager for the Council of State Government’s Justice Center, warned the task force that the state would have to pay an additional $680 million over the next decade to keep housing inmates in county and out-of-state jails and that it would cost the state another $602 million to open 10,000 new prison beds to ease the crowding

The center is expected to issue recommendations by next fall on addressing the prison overcrowding problem.

The changes Hutchinson floated are aimed at creating more consistency in sentences. They include requiring judges and prosecutors to give reasons on the record for handing down sentences outside the guidelines, and allowing appellate courts to review sentences issued outside the guidelines.

Hutchinson’s call for reviewing Arkansas’ sentencing guidelines isn’t his first push for addressing disparities in the jail times that offenders are given for the same crimes. The former congressman and Drug Enforcement Administration head advocated at the federal level for reducing the disparity between sentences between crack and powder cocaine.

He’s also urged Republicans nationwide to look at criminal justice reform, signing on with the Right to Crime initiative that calls for a more “cost-effective” system.

“It’s important for me to sign on to that initiative so I could send a signal to conservatives across the country that it’s OK to engage in this debate,” Hutchinson said at the Charles Koch Institute’s “Advancing Justice” summit in New Orleans last month. “It’s OK to re-evaluate our sentencing policies to make sure we’re getting them right.”

The last major effort to overhaul the state’s sentences was in 2011, when the Legislature approved then-Gov. Mike Beebe’s plan to curb prison growth. That plan included lowering the sentencing guidelines for some lower level offenses. But the prison growth returned in the years that followed after the state instituted new policies in response to a parolee who managed to avoid being locked up before he kidnapped and killed a man in Little Rock.

The key for Hutchinson in winning over a potentially wary Legislature on the issue is finding the right balance between the sentencing changes he’s seeking and assuring lawmakers there will be resources to make sure similar lapses don’t occur in the future. With the governor eyeing the issue for the 2017 session, he has some time to find that balance.