By John Lyon
Sentencing in Arkansas is “out of whack,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Monday in remarks to a legislative task force that is looking for ways to reduce prison overcrowding.
The Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force also heard from a nonprofit group that said the state’s practice of paying to house a backlog of prisoners in county jails will cost $680 million over the next 10 years if overcrowding is not addressed in other ways.
Speaking to the panel during a meeting at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Hutchinson asked the members to study the state’s current sentencing guidelines and see how well they are being followed — or not followed.
Hutchinson, a former U.S.attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, told the panel, “My impression is that our guidelines have little teeth, are weakly being followed and don’t carry the weight that they should. And so to me, we either need to abolish the sentencing guidelines and say we’re not going to have those or give them some real meaning and teeth.”
As examples of sentences that exceeded the guidelines, the governor said that in one case, a third-time drug offender was sentenced to 135 years in prison, and in another case a person was sentenced to 80 years in prison for hot checks.
Hutchinson acknowledged that the Arkansas Supreme Court has said the state’s sentencing guidelines are only advisory and that sentencing should be up to the courts, but he said there are ways to give the guidelines more teeth.
“One of the things that you could do in terms of the sentencing guidelines is to require the judges and the prosecutors, if you sentence outside of those guidelines, to articulate on the record the reasons that the sentence is outside the guidelines,” he said. “And then, I think you ought to consider that if a sentencing is outside the guidelines and it’s for arbitrary reasons, you could actually have a review by an appellate court.”
Task force member Ken Casady, 22nd Judicial District prosecuting attorney, said later in the meeting that sentences in excess of the guidelines are not as common as sentences below the guidelines.
“Most all of the plea agreements that come through, you can’t fit them into the sentencing guidelines because they’re below (the guidelines),” he said.
Andy Barbee, research manager for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, told the panel that according to projections, Arkansas’ prison population could reach 25,448, a 35 percent increase, by 2025.
The center is a nonprofit organization that is helping Arkansas explore ways to address prison overcrowding, at no cost to the state.
Arkansas’ prison population has risen 41 percent since 2004 and 27 percent since 2012, Barbee said. Since 2004, all of the surrounding states have seen crime rates hold steady or drop except for Oklahoma, which has seen an 8 percent increase, he said.
Barbee said Arkansas’ prison population has spiked even though its crime rate has dropped by 15 percent since 2004. Crime has decreased by greater percentages in that time in all of the surrounding states except Mississippi, which also has seen a 15 percent drop, he said.
Unless changes are made to the system, the practice of housing a backlog of state prisoners in county jails will cost the state an estimated $680 million over the next 10 years, Barbee said. He added that if the state increases capacity through prison construction, the cost is conservatively estimated at $602 million over the next decade — a cost that would be in addition to the cost to house prisoners in county jails while the construction is underway.
The panel also received a report from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock on racial disparities in Arkansas’ criminal justice system. According to the report, blacks are more likely to be charged with capital murder than whites; are more likely to receive severe punishments, especially the death penalty, than whites; and are likely to receive more sever punishments than whites for the same offenses.
The task force is expected to make recommendations that lawmakers could consider in the 2017 legislative session.