By Senator Jason Rapert
A legislative task force on criminal justice has recommended changes in sentencing laws with the goal of controlling overcrowding of jails and prisons.
The legislature will consider the recommendations during the 2017 regular session, which begins in January. Some proposals would require additional state funding, so the preliminary work on prison reform will necessarily take place during legislative budget hearings that are going on now.
The Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force is composed of legislators, prosecutors and officials in charge of prisons and parole officers.
One proposal it endorsed would reduce the workloads of parole officers, which now averages 129 cases. Another goal is to concentrate supervision of parolees during the first year they are released. Research indicates that parolees are most likely to be arrested during their first year on the outside.
Offenders who are on parole or probation should get more intensive treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, according to the recommendations of the Council of State Governments Justice Center. It studied the Arkansas criminal justice system and presented its findings to the task force.
Arkansas prisons provide some substance abuse treatment, but it isn’t enough to meet the demands of the estimated 5,900 inmates in the state who have been diagnosed with substance abuse, according to the center’s findings.
One recommendation that may generate opposition would limit the time a parolee has to serve for violating the terms of his parole. For technical violations, such as failing to report, the limit would be 45 days back in prison.
For a new arrest on charges of non-violent and non-sexual misdemeanors, and for absconding, the limit would be 90 days. The definition for absconding is to avoid supervision by a parole officer for more than 180 days.
The study found that last year the average length of stay for technical violators was 10 months, and for probationers it was 12 months. Holding those technical violators in prison cost the state $18.5 million, according to the justice center. Limits on the time that technical violators stay behind bars would free prison space for dangerous and repeat offenders.
Current sentencing guidelines often do not provide actual guidance, the study found, because many guidelines simply allow every option available. One recommendation was that sentencing guidelines should be more specific so that certain offenders would be limited to alternative sentencing such as probation, community service or paying a fine. Judges would be allowed to deviate from the guidelines if there are aggravating factors.
The Arkansas prison population is expected to exceed 18,000 inmates next fiscal year. Current capacity in units of the state Correction Department is 15,672. County governments have a stake in the issue because county jails hold the overflow of state inmates. Last week more than 1,300 inmates were being held in county jails although they had been sentenced to a state prison.
Mental health facilities also have an interest in solutions to prison overcrowding because local law enforcement officers encounter and incarcerate so many people with mental illnesses. The Task Force recommended funding of specialized training of police officers and sheriff’s deputies, so that when they encounter a person going through a mental health crisis it does not result in violence. Also, the person may get medical help and avoid a jail term.
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Senator Rapert represents the city of Conway, Faulkner County and a portion of Perry County in Senate District 35.