As early as Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee could take up Sen. Bryan King’s Senate Bill 177, which would require anyone who has been committed to the Arkansas Department of Correction at least three times before to serve at least 80 percent of his sentence before becoming eligible to parole. It passed the Senate 20-9 last week, with Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock) as the lone Republican joining eight Democrats in voting against it.
“These people have had multiple chances at rehabilitation and have not accepted it,” King told the Times in an interview.
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That’s probably a sentiment many Arkansans share. It might also come as a surprise to people that most of those in prison don’t come anywhere close to serving their full sentence. From a 2015 story I wrote about Arkansas’s exploding prison population:
A sentencing grid put into effect in 1994 and still in use takes into account the seriousness of an offense and the offender’s criminal history: A score below a certain level allows an inmate to serve one-third of his sentence in prison, minus any time knocked off for good behavior, and complete the rest on parole. A score above a certain level raises the threshold to half the sentence, minus good time. If an inmate receives no disciplinary infractions, he earns good time credit for every day he is incarcerated, which means he can serve as little as one-sixth or one-fourth of his sentence, depending on where his sentence falls on the grid.
But in the years that followed the introduction of the grid, lawmakers carved out exceptions to the sentencing levels, making certain crimes eligible for parole after an inmate served 70 percent of his sentence, creating two- and three-strikes laws that eliminated parole for certain repeat offenders and enacting laws that especially targeted methamphetamine charges for long sentences. Those changes massively expanded the state prison numbers.
Those changes, coupled with more punitive parole policies, have made Arkansas the fastest growing prison population in the country in recent years.
SB 177 would dramatically expand that growth. An impact statement for the bill estimates that in 2018 it would increase Arkansas’s already over-capacity prison population by 873 inmates at a cost of $19 million. In 2026, the impact statement says it would add 5,499 inmates at a cost of $121 million. The total 10-year cost to the state would be $692 million.
King has not revealed his plan to fund the bill, though he, like other legislators, has suggested that the collection of sales tax on goods sold by out-of-state web merchants like Amazon could pay for it.
“My goal is to present it to the House committee, hopefully get it to the House floor and at that point of time, when we get that far in the process … then I’m going to start working on trying to fund it,” he told the Arkansas Times.
He said he was working on two or three different proposals.
Governor Hutchinson opposes the bill and will veto it if it comes to his desk, his spokesman J.R. Davis said.
“[T]he main argument for this legislation is that it will increase public safety. This is not the case, I can assure you. In fact this bill pushes additional offenders into already overcrowded county jails,” Hutchinson said last week in a statement on the bill.
Earlier in the session, Hutchinson signed into law Senate Bill 136 (now Act 423), a criminal justice omnibus plan that aims to slow the growth of the state’s prison population by redirecting parolees and probationers who commit minor violations of the terms of their supervision from long stays in prison to terms in the range of 45 to 90 days in community correction facilities. The new law would also require new law enforcement hires and some existing officers to receive crisis intervention training so they could better respond to someone having a mental health episode and de-escalate the situation, rather than carting them to jail. Hutchinson has allocated $5 million in his proposed budget to support the creation of at least three Crisis Stabilization Units, where people suffering from behavioral health episodes would receive treatment. The sites of the CSUs haven’t been selected.
The new law fits into the justice reinvestment model, where policy changes help save the state money, which can be put back into improving its criminal justice system and making the state safer.
King is skeptical.
“My biggest issue with SB 136 was … how are you going to fund this? You have three of these centers, you don’t know where they’re at, you don’t know staffing things … once you get these things, they’re going to be inundated. They’re going to be overwhelmed, because of what’s going on. So you start these things, and there was no 10-year plan for how 136 is going to pay for itself. So it’s hypocritical for these guys to criticize me …
“Crime’s horrible down here. It’s horrible back home, too. And most of the things you hear from prosecutors and law enforcement and everyone else is, repeat offenders. No. 1.”
But Arkansas already targets repeat offenders of violent and sexual crimes with a “two strikes and your out” law passed in 2001 (and sponsored by the likes of Jim Holt, Jim Bob Duggar and Supreme Court Justice Shawn Womack). After someone is convicted of a second violent or sexual crime, he’s required to complete 100 percent of his sentence with no credit for good time behavior.
King’s bill would likely net mostly nonviolent drug addicts, who are selling drugs or committing property crimes to support their habit.
Benjamin Hardy contributed reporting.