Legislative Task Force, Prosecuting Attorneys Clash over Issue

Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette

By Doug Thompson

ROGERS — Prosecutors offered little support Tuesday for efforts to expand parole and probation programs and other alternatives to prison, calling a recent report on overcrowding overblown.

Members of the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force replied the prison population only appears to be under control because the state squeezed prisoners into every available space and because about 2,000 of the 50,000 Arkansans on parole aren’t reporting in and authorities lack the resources to track them down.

The task force consists of lawmakers, state agency officials, law enforcement officers and other interested parties. The Legislature created the group in the 2015 session after they rejected a $100 million request from the state Department of Correction for a new prison.

Tuesday’s meeting with members of the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association was held in the John Q. Hammons Convention Center.

“Rather than dividing ourselves over recidivism or overcrowding by saying ‘we’re for public safety and you’re not’ or ‘we’re compassionate and you’re not,’ how can we come to an agreement?” asked Sen. Joyce Elliot, D-Little Rock.

“We may not,” replied Ken Casady, a task force member and prosecuting attorney for Saline County.

His group will recommend an increase in probation resources, said Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, and task force chairman. The final recommendations will come in September or October, but he’s confident more resources for probation will be in it, Hutchinson said after the meeting.

“If we fight for the funding, will you be behind us?” Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, asked the five members of the prosecutor’s association who met with the task force Tuesday.

“Right now, we’re on the defensive,” Casady replied after a pause.

“Then you need to get on the offensive,” Elliot replied.

That task force heard a report in February from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonpartisan group based in Washington, D.C. It said Arkansas had the fastest growing prison population in the United States.

The prosecutors association said the report was badly skewed because it included growth after a sharp and temporary decline in prison populations after 2011. Prison populations rose rapidly after the May 10, 2013, murder of Forrest Abrams, 18, of Fayetteville by an absconding parolee.

The temporary decline in prison populations was driven by the Act 570 of 2011, which released more prisoners on parole without any major increase in the number of probation officers or other resources to track them. Participants reached one of their few points of consensus Tuesday when they agreed any increase in parolees would require more money to pay for tracking them.

“So we all agree that if the state puts out edicts, we ought to fund those edicts,” said Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, a task force member.

Chesterfield and Casady clashed early in the meeting. Casady wrote the critique of the Council of State Governments’ report.

“The Council for State Government’s Justice center is funded by the Pew Charitable Trust and the Obama Justice Department,” he wrote.

The U.S. Department of Justice existed long before President Barack Obama was elected and hasn’t been renamed for him, Chesterfield said. Calling it the “Obama Justice Department” was politicized and offensive, she said.

“I don’t recall any previous reports referring to the ‘Bush Justice Department,'” she said.

She challenged Casady to explain why he used that term.

“The voters of Arkansas should know whose agenda this is,” he said.