Arkansas Legislature Looks to Tackle Prison Reform, Overcrowding with Proposed Bill

THV11

By Winnie Wright

In 2016, reports showed that Arkansas had the highest incarceration rate compared against any other state in the country. Keeping those people locked up is costing the state a fortune as well.

For months, a Criminal Justice Task Force has been meeting at the Capitol trying to fix Arkansas’ overcrowded prison system. On Wednesday, the chairman of that task force, Senator Jeremy Hutchinson, submitted legislation that he said could do just that.

“Most of that is being driven by our parolees and probationers who are being revoked,” said Hutchinson. “In many cases, they are being revoked for failing a drug test or a misdemeanor, non-violent misdemeanor crime. There’s thousands of people like that in our prison system.”

Though Arkansas has higher incarceration rate per capita than surrounding states, Hutchinson said the state isn’t seeing a reduction in crime. Last summer, the task force brought in the Council of State Governments (CSG) as a private contractor to look at Arkansas’ expensive prison system and find areas where the state could afford to cut back.

“[Inmates] come out of prison unable to get a job, have lost all family ties and connections and the likelihood that they’re going to re-offend is far greater,” Hutchinson said.

In October, CSG presented their final findings and a list of recommendations, many of which were included in Hutchinson’s legislation, Senate Bill 136. One example Hutchinson gave was that instead of incarcerating someone who may have bounced a check while on probation, they may sentence them to community corrections for 45 or 90 days.

During those meetings, many members of law enforcement told us they had grave concerns about CSG’s recommendations. They felt as though keeping low-level offenders out of the prison system and in community corrections programs would only “speed up the revolving door” for them to recommit.

“Wishful thinking is dangerous. I think we have to go with what we know and what we know is when these people are behind bars they are not hurting people,” said Faulkner County Prosecutor Cody Highland.

Highland suggested that Arkansas doesn’t have a prison crowding problem, but a crime problem. He said his solution to the problem would be to build more prisons.

“They’re creating more victims when they get out. You’re looking at a 70 percent or more recidivism rate,” Highland said. “They are committing crimes at a very high percentage. That makes for more victims.”

Highland is concerned that this legislation could tie the hands of judges and juries when it comes to sentencing, but Hutchinson disagrees.

“The judge can sentence to as long of a sentencing as they’d like. The only thing this bill would do is, if you’re going to sentence somebody to a sentence beyond the sentencing grid, depart the sentencing grid, you have to put in a justification,” he said.

According to Hutchinson, conservative estimates show the state saving $250 million over the next six years under his proposed prison reform. The propose bill also includes funding for crisis intervention centers to keep the mentally ill out of jail and prisons.

The bill was presented on Tuesday and was referred to the Senate Committee on Judiciary.