Gov. Asa Hutchinson urged lawmakers Monday to review Arkansas’ sentencing guidelines and said the disparity in jail times for offenses needs to be reviewed as the state tries to tackle prison overcrowding.
The Republican governor told a task force formed this year to look at the state’s criminal justice system that he’s concerned the guidelines aren’t being followed closely enough.
“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 said potential changes he’d like considered 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 told reporters it’s an issue he wants taken up during the Legislature’s 2017 session.
Hutchinson’s comments come as The Council of State Governments Justice Center launched an initiative with the state to study the reasons behind Arkansas’ growing prison population and to come up with policy changes to help curb that growth. Arkansas is the 23rd state to partner with the nonprofit on its Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
Arkansas currently has a backlog of 1,634 state inmates in county jails. State lawmakers approved a $33 million plan earlier this year aimed at easing that overcrowding, and Hutchinson also has tapped money from the state’s reserve funds to open additional beds.
Andrew Barbee, the center’s research manager, 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. He said the center plans to issue its recommendations by next summer or fall.
“This is not bring Georgia to Arkansas, bring Texas to Arkansas, bring Massachusetts to Arkansas,” he said. “This is find what works for the state of Arkansas given the unique challenges that the state of Arkansas is facing.”