by Max Brantley
The subject came up again when I spoke at Boys State this week. We have an exploding prison population and sentences have become meaningless in many categories. Some options seem obvious: Emphasize treatment, not jail, for drug offenders; pull back from mandatory sentencing lust, or raise a whole bunch more taxes to build more prisons and hire more guards.
Well. Governor Beebe announced today that a study will be done by a private nonprofit to find ideas to "curb the state's unsustainable growth in prison population." Its data gathering will be welcome, if nothing else. I have my own beliefs about what the war on drugs contributes to prison demand, but some solid numbers on incarceration for simple possession or relatively minor dealing to sustain one's own habit would be useful.
Here's the Pew Center's introductory report on the study.
LITTLE ROCK — An unprecedented study of Arkansas's corrections system is underway to find ideas to curb the State's unsustainable growth in prison population and corrections costs. Governor Mike Beebe, Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Hannah and members of the Arkansas General Assembly today announced a partnership with the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States to conduct the study. Pew is already compiling data on corrections trends in Arkansas with the help of state and local agencies. The study is expected to be completed by late fall.
"Our prisons are overcrowded, and the continued growth in our prison population and correction costs is unsustainable," Governor Beebe said. "We are looking for more ways to suitably punish and rehabilitate criminals while saving our prison beds for violent offenders."
Last October, Governor Beebe asked an ad-hoc group of corrections, law-enforcement and court officials to brainstorm ideas for corrections reform in response to the high number of state inmates being held in county jails. This led to the request for Pew to study Arkansas’s corrections system, as the non-profit research organization has helped several other states achieve tangible results. There is now a bi-partisan working group of Arkansas officials coordinating with Pew to conduct the review and discuss solutions.
"There is a growing recognition across the country that prisons, just like any government spending program, need to be put to the cost-benefit test to make sure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely," said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States. "There is a strong commitment in Arkansas to rein in prison spending, and we are confident this bipartisan collaborative effort will produce a plan for improved public safety at a lower cost."
Arkansas's prison population has more than doubled in the past 20 years and is anticipated to top 21,000 inmates in the next decade. Building and operating new prisons to accommodate that growth will cost Arkansas an estimated $1.1 billion between now and 2020, according to analysis conducted by the Pew team. Construction costs alone would exceed $350 million.
Pew will be working with two criminal-justice consulting organizations, the Crime and Justice Institute and the JFA Institute, while conducting the Arkansas study