Senate Panel Advances Bill to Reduce Overcrowding in State Prisons

Arkansas Online

By John Moritz

Omnibus legislation aimed at reducing the swelling numbers in Arkansas’ prison system cleared a Senate committee Tuesday, after being held up for weeks to ease concerns and gather a consensus from officials.

At least one of the concerned groups, the state’s prosecutors, on Tuesday came out as neutral toward the Criminal Justice Efficiency and Safety Act of 2017, or Senate Bill 136. After hearing that no groups opposed the legislation, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to send SB136 to the full Senate.

The bill aims to reduce prison overcrowding by limiting jail stays for parole and probation violators and opening up new treatment beds and programs for the mentally ill.

The mental-health components of the bill have received broad support from county officials such as sheriffs, judges and prosecutors, but the proposal to allow some offenders to remain free has prompted fears that the legislation is a reincarnation of previous criminal justice efforts that raised concerns about public safety.

The bill’s sponsor, committee Chairman Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, told colleagues he had spent the past five weeks in discussions with the prosecutors and other county officials to address their concerns.

The result — through four lengthy amendments, filed as recently as Tuesday — is a bill Hutchinson said had no known opposition.

Still, committee members expressed doubts.

“I just don’t see a long-term sustainable plan to start these things,” said Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, questioning how the state would be able to pay for facilities to house the mentally ill in lieu of jail.

Both King and Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, frequently alluded to Act 570 of 2011, a sentencing-overhaul law that previously led to a drop in the prison population.

That law became the subject of contention in 2013, when the murder of a Fayetteville teenager by Darrell Dennis, a parole absconder, led to an investigation of the state’s parole system and subsequent increase in revocations.

Hutchinson’s proposal does not make changes to the sentencing guidelines, and he pointed out that the restrictions on revocation would only apply to “knuckleheads” who make make minor slips, such as failing a drug test or committing a nonviolent misdemeanor.

New felony arrests would still lead to revocation and a return to prison, Hutchinson said.

The agreement between Hutchinson and the county prosecutors dealt with the number of slip-ups that violators could commit before being subject to full revocation. Prosecutors had objected to language in the bill clarifying that a temporary confinement would be defined as a stay of no less than 45 days in a Community Correction facility, and not shorter stays in county jails.

According to Bob McMahon, the prosecutor coordinator, the new agreement states that violators could have six short-term confinements before being fully revoked, including shorter stays in county jails.