Arkansas’s prison population is among the fastest growing in the country. The state now spends more than half of a billion dollars on corrections, a 68 percent increase since 2004, and our prison population, which increased by 21 percent between 2012 and 2016, is expected to rise by another 19 percent between 2016 and 2023 to 21,345. Those were the facts and projections Justice Center, a project of the national nonprofit Council of State Governments, reminded those assembled at the Arkansas Association of Counties annual meeting yesterday. Justice Center was there to offer recommendations to the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force after almost a year of analysis and meetings with stakeholders. Their proposals, which follow, are likely to serve as the foundation for criminal justice legislation next year.
*Arkansas Community Correction should hire more probation and parole officers and focus resources on higher risk offenders in their first year under supervision. Caseloads, in recent years have averaged between 120 and 130 per officer, and Justice Center analysis showed that the two-thirds or more of parolees and probationers see their supervision revoked within their first year of supervision. Meanwhile, from 2009 until 2015, the average length of supervision increased 22 percent for probationers and 34 percent for parolees. In other words, ACC is spending too much time paying attention to people who aren’t likely to screw up, and not enough time trying to prevent the harder cases from reoffending. Justice Center will provide a specific proposal on a recommended number of additional caseworkers and an associated cost projection in September.
*Punishment for parolees and probationers who commit technical violations of the terms of their supervision (failing a drug test, failing to pay fees, failing to report, etc.) should be limited. For a first violation, it should be capped at 45 days, according to the proposal. For nonviolent, nonsexual misdemeanor offenses or absconding, 90 days. On average in 2015, technical violators of probation spent 12 months in prison and technical violators of parole spent 15 months. Justice Center projected that this policy change would free up 1,800 prison beds and save the state $100 million over six years. This savings would offset the cost of hiring new parole and probation officers. That projection is conservative, said Andy Barbee, research director of Justice Center. It calculates the cost to house a prisoner at $30 — about what the state pays Bowie County, Texas, and Arkansas counties to house prisoners that state prisons can’t accommodate. Meanwhile, Arkansas Department of Correction’s average cost per day is $62.
*The state should provide behavioral health services especially designed for offenders with substance abuse problems, and ACC should reconfigure its residential facilities to better serve parolees and probationers with substance abuse problems.
*The Arkansas Sentencing Commission should revise its sentencing guidelines to ensure that prison is reserved for people who commit serious crimes and have long criminal histories. 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, is much more vague in its recommendations than other states. Judges and prosecutors aren’t obligated to follow the grid, and Justice Center analysis demonstrated that they sent around 1,000 people to prison in 2014 who fell in a part of the grid where no prison was recommended. Justice Center also has recommended, and the task force has endorsed, allowing appellate review of nonjury cases where sentences depart from the sentencing grid.
*Parole policies should be more consistent and efficient. For instance, there should be guidelines to aid the Parole Board in decision making.
*Victims of crime should have better access to restitution. The state should increase funding for restitution and lengthen the time in which someone can make a claim from one year to two years. Arkansas is the only state that allows only one year to make a claim, Justice Center’s Andy Barbee said.
*County jails should be better equipped to divert people with mental illnesses from incarceration. Funding should be made available for creating support crisis stabilization units to house people with mental illnesses. Barbee recommended beginning with a pilot program and said much of the operational cost of the program could be offset by Medicaid.
I suspect, from the reaction of the task force, and from talking to members, that next month, when Justice Center returns with costs and final recommendations, the task force will approve them, and then most, if not all, of the proposals will wind up bill form during the 2017 General Assembly.
But for these reform proposals to be successful, Governor Hutchinson will have to employ some political capital. He seems to be philosophically on board with these types of reforms as do other state Republicans, including his nephew and the co-chair of the task force, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock). But this plan would require new investment and a strong hand to reassure legislators wary of voting for anything that could be construed as endangering public safety.
As Barbee told me yesterday before the meeting, “When the state is asking judges and prosecutors to have more faith in the probation system, the state has to do things to the system to legitimize that faith — additional caseworkers, those resources in the community.”
Meanwhile, there may be a separate push to add new bed space to ADC. The state Board of Corrections voted earlier this week to ask the legislature to approve a $39.2 million expansion of the North Central Unit in Calico Rock to add 576 beds.
Saline County Prosecutor and task force member Ken Casady may represent a lot of legislators, who’re reluctant to make policy changes or build new prison beds. Before the meeting yesterday, Casady told me he doubted the doom and gloom forecasts Justice Center touts.
“It’s like a reverse ‘Field of Dreams,’ ” he said. “If you don’t build it, [new prisoners] won’t come.”
He believes ADC’s current capacity is adequate.