Senate Bill 136, an omnibus crime bill that sponsors hope will reduce the state’s exploding prison population and increase public safety, advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday on a voice vote.
The bill is the culmination of an 18-month project by the Council of State Government’s Justice Center, a nonprofit that was invited by state leaders to come to Arkansas and analyze Arkansas’s criminal justice system and recommend ways to save money and use that savings to reinvest in improving the system.
SB 136 includes a number of reform provisions. The most consequential and controversial piece is a plan to employ swift and certain sanctioning, where parolees or probationers who commit a minor violation of the terms of their supervision would be sent to a community correction facility for a limited time. In FY 2015, nearly three-quarters of the people admitted to Arkansas prisons went because they violated the terms of their parole or probation. Almost half of parole violators and 35 percent of probation violators did not have a new felony conviction.
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock), who chairs the committee and is the lead sponsor of the bill, offered an amendment to the bill, later adopted, that he said addresses some of the concerns by prosecutors, including reducing the number of times a probationer can be remanded to community treatment centers and stay in the country jail before a probation revocation is triggered.
Hutchinson sparred repeatedly with Sen. Bryan King (R-Green Forest) and Sen. Linda Collins-Smith (R-Pocahontas) over the bill. At one point, King offered an amendment to the bill, only to be told by Hutchinson that the wording he was seeking to inject into the bill — including language calling for immediate parole or probation revocation if someone under supervision stalks or harasses his or her former victim — had already “been in the bill for weeks.” Hutchinson told King that had he spoken to him about the amendment before the meeting, “we could have worked this out.” The language was later pointed out to King.
In response to a question from King on how mechanics of treatment stipulated in the bill would be set up, Hutchinson said SB 136 would establish three new “crisis intervention centers” in the state, where people with mental illness or drug treatment issues who commit nonviolent offenses would be sent instead of being remanded to county jails or state penitentiaries. Governor Hutchinson has proposed $5 million in his budget to support opening three stabilization units. Their locations has not yet been designated.
King asked several times about the long term funding for the program, saying, “I’m concerned about the long-term sustainability of starting something new,” while noting that other crime reduction programs became a burden on the budget once the federal funding they relied on ended.
Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock), a co-sponsor of the bill, told King that in other places where similar crisis center programs have been introduced to people with behavioral health problems away from jails and prisons, savings by states and municipalities have been substantial. As an example, Tucker said San Antonio, Texas, had seen savings of more than $100 million and reductions in recidivism since instituting a similar program.
As several opponents of the bill did did during the debate, King brought up Act 570, a crime reduction bill from 2011 that promised to reduce the state’s prison populations through a combination of measures.
Hutchinson, who voted for 570, said that part of the problem with the law was that while while provisions like caps on sentences were implemented, the legislature never funded the intervention programs included in the law. “I thought the good would outweigh the bad,” Hutchinson said, “but we never did the good.”
Hutchinson said that most prisoners will be released eventually be released from prison on probation or parole “unless we build 50 new prisons.” He said that sending nonviolent technical violators to prison is a recipe for ongoing disaster that only creates more recidivism. “They go in as knuckleheads,” he said, “and they come out as career criminals.” He added that he was very confident, based on experiences with similar programs in other states, that the program will save the state money and keep mentally ill people out of the system.
Bob McMahan, the state prosecutor coordinator, told the committee that state prosecutors are officially neutral on the bill.
Robert T. Griffin, Independence County Judge and Association of Arkansas Counties chief legal counsel Mark Whitmore told the committee that county judges across the state support the bill. Griffin said county jail facilities do a poor job of dealing with prisoners with mental illness, alcohol and drug dependence, and incarcerating technical violators with those issues leaves the county jails overloaded. Of his own county, Griffin said, “if we could reduce the [jail] population by 10 percent in Independence County, that’s $100,000 saved.” Griffen said that excluding probation offenders arrested for violent offenses from being sentenced to the crisis centers will protect the public.
Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) commented that in conversations with sheriffs, he’s been told mentally ill prisoners in county jails leads to more incidents inside the jails, including assaults on deputies. An estimated 30 percent of prisoners in county jails suffer from some form of mental illness, he said.
Collins-Smith brought up Act 570 repeatedly during the debate over SB 136, calling it “a horrible bill.” Hutchinson admitted that 570 had been a failure because more expensive parts of it were unfunded, but said that it was his belief that SB 136 would reduce recidivism and save money for the state. He added that just because Act 570 hadn’t worked, that shouldn’t mean every bill seeking to reduce the prison population should be nixed. Calling the state’s current parole and probation system “flawed and broken,” Hutchinson said: “I understand 570. But this is not 570.”
Lindsey Millar provided reporting.