Sentences doled out by state judges in criminal cases should be appealable, a legislative task force recommended today. Currently, those who are convicted of crimes have no judicial means for challenging the severity of their punishment.
For the second month in a row, the Legislative Criminal Justice Task Force
spent much of its meeting discussing the state's sentencing grid
, a set of guidelines introduced to law in 1993 that recommend the length of sentence given to an offender based on the type of offense committed and an offender's criminal history — while still giving prosecutors and judges complete latitude to deviate.
Gov. Hutchinson previously told the task force
he believes Arkansas's guidelines are toothless and often ignored and should be tweaked.
, Justice Center
, a project of the nonprofit Council of State Governments contracted by the task force to provide analysis and recommendations, explained how the grid worked — or didn't. Today, Andy Barbee
, research manager for Justice Center, told the Task Force that the putting in a mechanism for appellate review of cases in relation to sentencing guidelines would be key to giving the grid "teeth."
John Wesley Hall
, a Little Rock criminal defense lawyer and task force member, disparaged the current sentencing guidelines.
"Our guidelines are meaningless. A prosecutor can ignore them. A judge can ignore them. They’re there for show."
Hall said the federal judicial system, where judges have to justify sentences they hand down and why they were imposed, would be a good model.
"We need to make sentences appealable so there can be rationality," Hall said, "so there can be proportionality, where a sentence in one part of the state ends up getting 180 months, but the same crime in Pulaski County gets 60 months — for a drug crime. We’re a state. We’re not insular little communities.
"Judges aren't going to like that. That's too bad."
Neither of the judges on the task force who were in attendance today — Washington County Circuit Judge Cristi Beaumont
and Saline County Circuit Judge Gary Arnold
— objected to the recommendation once it was ultimately voted on (only Faulkner County Prosecutor Cody Hiland did), though both noted that, since some 95 percent of criminal cases are resolved through plea bargains, a change would not substantially address recidivism or prison overcrowding.
Barbee agreed and called it "one spoke in the wheel," though he said adjustments to sentencing grids can be tied into larger reforms. In Kansas, for instance, judicial districts that chose the lower part of a range suggested by the state's sentencing guidelines and grant some form of community correction — such as probation or work release — instead of prison, when both are an option, receive financial incentives.
Later, during a discussion of racial disparities, Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner,
a member of the task force, said he didn't believe there was a systemic bias against minorities at work in the criminal justice system.
"I don’t believe that there are systems in place that are going after African Americans," he said. "In particular when we’re talking about prison populations. ... I will tell you that that socio-economical cocktail is I believe is the genesis of starting that process is — not because they’re black, but because they’re unemployed ... they have a single parent home, substance abuse, mental illness, low academic achievement."
Sen. Joyce Elliott
(D-Little Rock), another member of the Task Force, offered a rebuttal.
"When we talk about racial disparities, the numbers are what they are [43 percent of the population of ADC was black in 2015; the black population in Arkansas is 16 percent]. ... I think we have some responsibility to talk about it. You either have to believe that people are bad, bad, bad — that African-American men are worse than everybody else — or that it’s OK and these are just the numbers. It may be true that there are all kinds of good reasons for this. I don’t think people in the African-American community believe that there is not something more than people just committing crimes and getting the sentences they deserve."