Dennis Young, who recently served on the Arkansas Parole Board and during the 1990s served as a state legislator from Texarkana, weighed in on my post yesterday on Sen. Tom Cotton‘s attempts to block federal criminal justice reform legislation. In case not everyone scrolled through comments, I thought it was worth pulling out and highlighting Young’s thoughts here. Young makes the important point that whatever happens on the federal level, state and local governments will need to lead the way if we are going to address the nation’s problems with bad sentencing practices, and unaffordable and unjust mass incarceration (the overwhelming majority of prisoners are in state or local prisons and jails). Young was a co-sponsor of the state’s “Three Strikes” law and now says he regrets passing the legislation. For more on Young, see David Koon’s excellent piece from this summer on Young and James Weaver Jr., currently serving a life sentence.
From the comments section on yesterday’s post on federal criminal justice reform legislation, here’s Young:
Similar legislation MUST be enacted by our State Legislature. I had the privilege to serve on the Arkansas Parole Board from April, 2014 – January, 2015, and quickly realized that the Criminal Justice System is “screwed up”. Mandatory sentencing guidelines are the major reason for the overcrowding in our State Prisons. I will never forget, after conducting a Parole Hearing at the Cummins Unit, an inmate who assisted me by carrying inmate files to my car. I asked that individual why he was incarcerated…he replied “drugs – selling less than 2 grams of cocaine.” I told him that if he kept his nose clean, he would be out sooner than he thought, because I had just interviewed another inmate who was in prison for the same offense and had received a 5 year term. (I recommended Parole for that Inmate and the other Commissioners approved that action.) He quickly came back with “no, Mr Young, you don’t understand. I got a 47 year sentence.” I told him that I would like to look into his situation which I did upon arrival back at the Parole Board office that afternoon. What I found was that his drug charge was his 3rd one. The inmate interviewed that morning had 2 offenses. Both inmates had similar criminal backgrounds, and I saw nothing in the files of either Inmate which would have led me to believe that one was any more dangerous than the other. But, because of our current laws, taxpayers will continue to spend $20,000+ every year we keep that individual incarcerated. Go figure !!!! Who contributed to this problem faced by our State ?? I must admit that as a State Representative in the 90’s, I helped to pass legislation known as “3 Strikes & You’re Out” which greatly extended sentencing. Just as many others, I wanted to “throw away the key” to keep who I thought were the really bad guys, behind bars. That sounded great and showed my constituents that I was “tough on crime”. Little did I know of the long term effects that legislation would cause. No, I haven’t become soft on crime, but knowing what I know now, I realize that our criminal laws must be changed. Our hardened, dangerous criminals must be incarcerated. Our system must be changed, though, because we cannot continue to afford what we currently do. And yes, the same holds true for our Federal System.
And, responding to another commenter, Young agreed that reforms to the criminal justice system need to go beyond just improving bad sentencing laws and practices:
Thanks for your response to my post. Sorry that I did not elaborate more on the mention in my post when I stated that “the Criminal Justice System is screwed up”. Yes, there are many other things besides Sentencing Guidelines that are wrong in the System. Many of your concerns are the same as mine, and I have been quite open in speaking to the Legislature about them. In October, 2014. while still on the Parole Board, I testified before a Legislative Committee which was grilling the Board about their parole of Aaron Lewis before I came onto the Board. Check the records if you want. I told them that “just like you (the Legislators), I thought that I knew everything about the Arkansas Criminal Justice System, because I was the co-chair of the Joint Legislative Committee with oversight of that System and sponsored and carried all of their legislation during my last Session in 1997. Shortly after serving at the Parole Board, I realized I really didn’t know jack (about the System). I have studied the Aaron Lewis file and there is nothing in it to make me believe that I would not have voted to deny parole to him either.” It is so easy to criticize someone’s decision when you don’t have all the facts. I asked to be re-appointed as I felt that my experience of prior legislative experience mixed in with the actual eye-opening reality of serving on the Parole Board would serve our State well, but a new appointment was made to the Board on 1/21/15. That did not keep me from staying in Little Rock, though, and personally lobbying and testifying on matters involving the Arkansas Criminal Justice System. No one paid me to do that. I did it because I wanted to make a difference based on my personal knowledge of the System which others have not been able to experience. Yes, something must be done to put the brakes on the rampant amount of crime in our State. I believe that it should start early in one’s life with the availability to all for a great Pre-K education. For those who have passed the point in life to have the opportunity of an early education, we must do what we can to educate them to see that their children do not suffer that same fate. We have to have REAL jobs available and accessible to our citizens, but to do so, we have to have a better educated population. Early childhood investments will reap rewards in later years. The same holds true for incarcerated individuals who are often released from our prisons and unfortunately have no where else to go except back to the same place and situation that got them in trouble to start with. Yes, we need to rid individuals of addictions that cause so much pain & suffering, especially those that bring about crime to satisfy those addictions. In closing, let me assure you that I will continue my efforts to make our Criminal Justice System better than it is today.