By John Lyon
LITTLE ROCK — A legislative task force voted Tuesday to adopt a report containing a slate of recommendations for reforming Arkansans’ criminal justice system with the goal of reducing prison and jail overcrowding.
The Council of State Governments Justice Center, which has been studying prison overcrowding in Arkansas, submitted the report to the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force during a joint meeting with the House and Senate judiciary committees and the Behavioral Health Treatment Access Legislative Task Force.
The recommendations include:
— Focusing supervision resources on people who are most likely to reoffend.
— Increasing the availability of effective, community-based substance abuse treatment services.
— Reconfiguring aspects of Arkansas Community Correction’s residential facilities to ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of services intended to reduce recidivism.
— Limiting the amount of time people who have violated the conditions of their supervision spend in prison so prison space can be reserved for people who commit serious and violent offenses.
— Improving the quality and consistency of the parole decision-making process, preparation for release and information sharing between correctional agencies related to parole.
— Revising sentencing standards to ensure that prison sentences are reserved for people convicted of the most serious offenses or who have extensive criminal histories.
— Improving the collection of information about restitution and access to compensation for crime victims.
— Developing and funding strategies to reduce pressures on county jails, including specialized law enforcement training, screening and assessment and diversion for people with mental illnesses.
Discussing the last item, Andy Barbee, research manager for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, estimated that about 1,500 people with mental illnesses are being held in county jails in Arkansas.
“At the end of the day, that’s not what jails are designed for,” he said.
State Rep. Dwight Tosh, R-Jonesboro, noted that the state Legislative Council voted last week to reduce certain mental-health benefits for Medicare recipients, which he said could result in more pressure on county jails.
The council approved lowering a cap on Medicaid reimbursements for group therapy from 1½ hours per day to one hour per day and setting an annual cap, which has not existed before, of 25 one-hour group therapy sessions.
Tosh said that if the cap, which took effect Saturday, results in the closing of facilities that have been caring for people who have been acquitted of crimes because of mental illness, the only health-care facility left for those people will be the State Hospital.
“If the State Hospital is full, where are they going to go? County jails,” he said.
Wendy Kelley, director of the state Department of Correction, said she hopes that in addition to the recommendations adopted Tuesday, the task force will recommend funding new prison beds.
“Otherwise, I don’t so see how (the proposed reforms) can be successful,” she said.
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, co-chairman of the task force on criminal justice, said after the meeting the recommendations in the report may undergo some changes before the task force issues its final report in advance of the legislative session that begins in January, but “this is going to be the framework” for that report.
Hutchinson also said the Council of State Governments’ report would be provided Tuesday to the governor so he can take it into account as he prepares his proposed budget for the next fiscal year.
“I think it’s very reasoned,” Hutchinson said of the report by the Council of State Governments. “I think it’s cautious. It does good. There were concerns that it was going to be letting people out, that it was becoming soft on crime. I don’t think there’s any element of that in the report. It’s just being smarter and using our resources better and adding resources where we’re lacking.”