An omnibus criminal justice bill that aims to stem the growth of Arkansas prisons and save the state money cleared the Senate on Monday 27-4. SB 136 spent weeks in committee, while sponsors negotiated with state prosecutors over a provision that would redirect parolees and probationers who commit minor violations of the terms of their supervision from prison to community correction facilities. The bill has been amended four times.
SB 136 also would require law enforcement to receive crisis intervention training, so they could better respond to someone having a mental or behavioral health episode and deescalate the situation. The bill would also create Crisis Stabilization Units, where people having behavioral health episodes would receive treatment. Governor Hutchinson has allocated $5 million in his budget for the CSUs. Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock), the lead sponsor of SB 136, said that money would be paired with federal dollars to open at least three facilities throughout the state.
The bill is the culmination of a 18 month justice reinvestment project by the nonprofit Council of State Government’s Justice Center, which was invited by state leaders to come to Arkansas and analyze our criminal justice system and recommend ways to do things better while keeping folks safe and saving money. Justice Center appeared before a Legislative Criminal Justice Task Force over the course of about a year, and the task force ultimately endorsed its proposals.
The most substantive change from the proposals to the bill in current form was the removal of the creation of a right to appeal sentences handed down by a judge that departed from the state’s sentencing guidelines. Prosecutors feared this was a first step toward making the state’s guidelines mandatory.