Proposals for Arkansas prison reform | Arkansas Blog

Proposals for Arkansas prison reform

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The Pew study on Arkansas's correction system was unveiled this morning by Gov. Mike Beebe and his working group.

It says Arkansas could save $875 million over 10 years and reduce the projected prison population by more than 3,200 (essentially holding the population at its current level of about 16,000) by a variety of changes: more drug courts, beefed-up probation, higher probation and parole fees, more paroles for inmates receiving expensive medical treatment, alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders.

For details:

* The entry page to the Pew report.

* Here is the working group report. It notes that the prison budget has almost tripled as a percentage share of the Arkansas budget, from 3 to 8 percent, over 20 years and that underuse of probation is a major state flaw. All this punishment has had little impact on crime or recidivism, the report notes. Prison growth has outstripped population growth as more non-violent offenders (59 percent of prison admissions) have received longer sentences.

Recommendations include: better supervision of offenders in community-based programs; earned probation; streamlined parole procedures and training of parole board members; concentrating prison space for violent and "career criminals"; ease sentencing rules on drug and property crimes (equalize meth and cocaine penalties, for example; also set higher values to qualify for felony theft charges); more electronic monitoring of low-level offenders.

Some are bold ideas, not all will be universally cheered. I suspect the reductions anticipated in correction costs inevitably will be offset somewhat by increased costs in other parts of the system. More staff for more drug courts and more and better probation oversight surely will require increased expenditures. But surely they'll be cheaper than prisons.

From the governor's office:

Governor Beebe today applauded the efforts of a statewide working group that, with assistance from the Pew Center on the States, has proposed recommendations aimed at containing prison growth and costs while improving public safety. Unless action is taken, prison growth over the next decade will require an additional $1.1 billion in state funds.

"This is a first step, but an important step," Beebe said. "We must take action to curb the growth in our corrections system without compromising public safety. These recommendations will help us do just that."

Beebe is reviewing the recommendations while building his legislative package for the upcoming session. He will work with lawmakers, including those from the working group, to decide how best to pursue changes legislatively. The working group included members of all three branches of government, law-enforcement officials and prosecutors. It received input from criminal-justice groups throughout the state as well.

"State leaders have produced a bipartisan, data-driven policy package that will put Arkansas on a path to cost savings, public safety and offender accountability," said Jake Horowitz, manager with the Pew Center on the States.

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