Arkansas has the fastest growing prison population in the country. The crime rate is falling faster in surrounding states. Arkansas currently spends half a billion dollars a year on corrections, and, if prison growth continues, the state will have to spend $1.3 billion a year in 2025 — and that’s a conservative estimate.
These were among the dismal facts Justice Center, a project of the nonprofit Council of State Governments, reminded the Legislative Criminal Justice Task Force of Wednesday. This was was Justice Center’s second presentation before the task force. It’ll give several more — including analyses of prison, parole and probation, and jail data — as part of its Justice Reinvestment in Arkansas project, which began last year and will later this year include recommendations for moving the state away from mass incarceration and massive corrections spending. After Justice Center makes its suggestions, the task force will make its own recommendations for criminal justice reform.
Today, Andy Barbee, research manager for Justice Center, talked about Arkansas’s sentencing grid, a set of guidelines introduced to law in 1993 that prescribe the length of sentence given to an offender based on the type of offense committed and an offender’s criminal history — while still giving prosecutors and judges wide latitude to deviate from it. An offender’s criminal history score is based on prior felonies (.5 to 1 point, depending on the seriousness), prior class A misdemeanors (.25 points), juvenile criminal record (.25 to 1 for certain offenses) and whether the offender was under state supervision (1 point). Offense types are divided into 10 levels.
Arkansas is less prescriptive than other states with sentencing guidelines, Barbee said. Forty percent of its grid (everything in orange above) offers every sanction as a possibility — fines, community service, drug court, probation, a community corrections center or prison.
The state also sent more than 1,000 people to prison in 2014 from the area on the grid where no prison is recommended (the blue and green above) at annual cost of $7.2 million.
There’s some more interesting tidbits in the presentation for criminal justice wonks.