We’ll get a good sense of what criminal justice reform legislation might look like in the 2017 General Assembly later today — as well as some potential stumbling blocks to its passage. Justice Center, an offshoot of the national nonprofit Council of State Governments, will offer policy recommendations to the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force this afternoon at the Arkansas Association of Counties conference. If the task force approves the recommendations — a vote will likely come in the next weeks — they’ll become the foundation of criminal justice legislation next year.
Justice Center representatives have been meeting with stakeholders and analyzing data in Arkansas for about a year as part of its Justice Reinvestment program, which is funded by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock) is co-chair of the task force. Speaking broadly about the proposals, he said Justice Center’s recommendations would save millions over six years by freeing up 1,900 prison beds. That savings would eventually offset proposed increased funding to strengthen parole and probation supervision. It would also help the state avoid finding or building more prison space.
To free up prison space and save the state money, Justice Center will recommend diverting low-risk offenders from prison and stopping the practice of revoking parolees and probationers on technical violations. A technical violation is a misbehavior that breaks the terms of parole or probation but isn’t a criminal offense, such as missing a curfew or an appointment or failing a drug test. Technical violations, in recent years, have typically landed parolees or probationers in prison.
Most of the growth in Arkansas’s prison population from 2009 until 2015 has come from parole or probation violators, Justice Center representatives told the task force in June. Much of that growth was driven by sweeping policy changes the state Board of Corrections enacted in 2013 in the wake of the revelations surrounding the parole history of Darrell Dennis, who was convicted of murdering 18-year-old Forrest Abrams.
As of July 31, there were 54,209 people on probation or parole. That number has been relatively flat in recent years: In 2015, there were 51,552, and in 2014, there were 52,280. With 424 probation and parole officers, the average caseload has hovered between 120 and 130 per officer in recent years. Andy Barbee, research manager for Justice Center, has pointed to North Carolina as a comparison. There, caseworkers handle 60 cases on average. That’s a ratio Arkansas Community Correction, the state agency that oversees parole and probation, would like see, spokeswoman Dina Tyler said.
These are predictable proposals to anyone who’s followed Justice Center’s presentations on Justice Reinvestment over the last year in Arkansas. Here’s how Justice Center’s describes its process:
Justice reinvestment is a data-driven approach to improve public safety, reduce corrections and related criminal justice spending, and reinvest savings in strategies that can decrease crime and reduce recidivism.
Saline County Prosecutor and task force member Ken Casady has been perhaps the most critical member of Justice Center’s analysis. Yesterday, he said he and other prosecutors were all for some of Justice Center’s recommendations. “We obviously don’t need people who have mental health issues being locked up in jail,” he said.
But, Casady says he believes Arkansas’s prison capacity is adequate and that the people who are currently in prison are there because they should be. He’s skeptical that the 1,900 people Justice Center cites deserve to be out on the street.
“If there are 1,900 people who they say shouldn’t be in prison, I want them to show me those people. I want to see their criminal history.”
Casady also called the Justice Reinvestment philosophy circular reasoning.
“I think we need to let their programs and analysis work before we say we’re going to have this amount of money. … If you’re going to provide more probation or parole officers, that will cost more money. I don’t think we should look to save money by looking at people who’re currently in prison.”
Casady said he wants to maintain the status quo.
“I’m not necessarily even advocating for new bed space. I’m trying to keep the needle where it is. We’ve made progress since Darrell Dennis. … I just don’t want to go backward.”
In addition to a Republican-controlled legislature that is loathe to increase spending on anything, a poll Casady passed along about criminal justice demonstrates how potentially treacherous the politics of criminal justice reform will be. The poll’s questions are clearly tilted toward an anti-reform position, but of course the same sort of framing will be used in the legislative debate, too.