By Jeannie Roberts
Gov. Asa Hutchinson called Monday for more “teeth” in the state’s criminal sentencing guidelines and corrective action to reduce disparity in jail time ordered for the same crime.
Streamlining the process and requiring judges and prosecutors to go on the record with a justifiable reason when they stray from the sentencing guidelines will result in lower inmate populations in the future, Hutchinson told members of the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force, which met at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.
“It’s my impression that our guidelines have little teeth, are weakly being followed and don’t carry the weight they should. 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,” Hutchinson said.
“That’s the way you correct the system at the beginning and to eliminate some of the disparities that we see in our sentencing.”
The group should first determine the percentage of cases sentenced outside the state-suggested protocol and look carefully at the reasons they were not followed, the Republican governor said.
“That is foundational in making sure we do this right,” Hutchinson said.
Reviews by the appellate court should be allowed if the sentences handed down fall outside the guidelines, Hutchinson added.
Hutchinson said he would like to see the issues brought to the forefront in the 2017 legislative session.
State Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, questioned Hutchinson on whether the state’s sentencing disparity was out of line compared with sentencing on the federal level.
Hutchinson responded with anecdotes from the state’s criminal courts, such as an 80-year sentence one inmate received for writing an $18,000 hot check and a 135-year sentence another person received for a drug offense.
He added that increasing subsequent sentences for repeated convictions is necessary to address criminal acts but that “we’re escalating at the wrong level.”
Hutchinson said getting the state’s criminal justice system on the right track is a “dollar issue, as well as a human being issue.”
The governor gave a nod to Board of Corrections Chairman Benny Magness and thanked him and the board for their commitment to improving the situation.
“We need some help,” Magness replied.
The governor’s surprise visit to the task force came at the beginning of a presentation by Andrew Barbee, research manager with The Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group based in Washington, D.C.
The organization works with 23 states–including Alabama, Arizona, North Carolina, Texas and Washington–to enact a “Justice Reinvestment Initiative” that helps states determine why their prison populations are growing and to work with state and local lawmakers to develop policies that will curb that growth, reduce spending and increase public safety.
This summer, Arkansas became the group’s 23rd client. Monday was the official launch of the initiative, which should take two years of intensive, all-inconclusive work to complete, Barbee said.
The organization selects states through a comprehensive, competitive process and performs its services for free, with the financial support of the U.S. Justice Department and the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Arkansas got on the group’s radar because the state has one of the fastest-growing prison population rates in the nation, Barbee said.
There are about 14,804 inmates incarcerated in state prisons, according to the latest Arkansas Department of Correction numbers. In addition, there are 1,634 inmates held in county jails across the state while they wait for beds to open up in the state’s prison system. Barbee said that “2015 is shaping up to be higher than 2014 for admissions.”
In June, JFA Associates — a nonprofit research institute that evaluates state and federal correction systems across the nation — released a report to the Arkansas Board of Corrections that projected the state’s prison population would increase to as high as 25,671 by 2025.
The number of state inmates and prisoners held in county jails while waiting for beds climbed from 13,470 in 2004 to 17,850 in 2014.
The state’s number of parolees grew by 59 percent over 10 years, going from 13,928 in 2004 to 22,161 in 2014.
If that growth is not stymied, Barbee warned the legislators, the state would need to spend about $1.3 billion to accommodate construction for 10,000 more prisoners and to house inmates in county jails while new prisons are built.
The data-driven Justice Reinvestment Initiative engages groups “across the spectrum,” Barbee said, adding that the organization will seek out collaboration with state and local judiciaries, law enforcement agencies and groups such as the Arkansas Sheriff’s Association, among numerous other entities.
“We are going to look at every misdemeanor arrest in the state of Arkansas,” Barbee said.
The group has been collecting data from the state’s prison and community correction systems, as well as from judicial districts and state crime statistics.
“We are still very much on the front end of the project,” Barbee said, adding that the next update with the task force will likely be in February.
Recommendations from the organization for policy changes are expected to be delivered in fall 2016.
Task Force Co-Chairman state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, a Little Rock Republican, said it is clear that the current approach is not working, given the state’s violent crime and property crime rates.
“We need to improve our public safety, and we need to do it in an efficient and evidence-based way,” he said. “That’s exactly what this new initiative is designed to do.”