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Illustrating the governor's message

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TIM HOWARD - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • TIM HOWARD

Prison is political. Imprisonment in Arkansas is out of control. Gov. Asa Hutchinson is trying to rein in the politics that are letting our prison rates cripple this state.

Good for him. We have guidelines for this part of government. Politics too often override them.

Here's what the governor said Monday to the state's Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force: "It's my impression that our [sentencing] guidelines have little teeth, are weakly being followed and don't carry the weight they should."

That's right. And so is this. "To me" he said, "you either need to abolish the sentencing guidelines and say we're not going to have those, or give them some real meaning and teeth. That's the way you correct the system at the beginning and to eliminate some of the disparities that we see in our sentencing."

Our prisons burst with disparities. Eliminating them will take courage. Let's see if the Arkansas Parole Board can heed the governor's message with one matter currently before it.

Last month that board denied parole for Tim Howard, an inmate who has served the time required for him to be eligible for parole. The parole board's written policy states that members must consider 13 factors in deciding whether to grant that parole.

Howard has met or surpassed 12 of those 13 qualifications. His record as a prisoner has been perfect. His health — physical and mental — is good, despite more than a decade in solitary confinement on a conviction since overturned.

The board is supposed to consider his "participation in educational programs." Those were not offered to him on death row. Nevertheless, Howard studied for and obtained his GED while there. Guidelines also require the board to consider an inmate's release plan. People who support Howard and who believe his longstanding claim of innocence presented the board letters assuring that, upon release, Howard would have a job, housing and car provided.

Few inmates seeking parole can hope for such support. Yet the board denied Howard. Why? Because one of the 13 factors the board must consider is this: "Recommendations made by the judge, prosecuting attorney and sheriff of the county from which a person was sentenced, or other interested persons."

The judge in Howard's case wrote a letter to the parole board opposing his parole. At least one other "interested person" did, too. Let us note that "the judge, prosecuting attorney and sheriff" are elected; that is, they hold political positions.

In denying Howard's parole, the board ignored 12 of 13 factors it was required to consider. And the reason for that appears clear.

Hutchinson advised the task force to examine how many cases deviate from state guidelines and to look carefully at the reasons those guidelines were not followed. "That is foundational in making sure we do this right," he said.

Tim Howard is but one prisoner in a prison system that is growing, contrary to trends in other states and despite alarm, such as the governor's, about how much that relentless growth is costing Arkansans. So far, calls to curb that growth have not been heeded.

The governor is dead-right on this. Reducing the state's prison population is "a dollar issue, as well as a human being issue."

At present, dollars and human beings alike are being wasted because politics trump policy. That situation will continue until administrative bodies like the parole board start looking at and following their mandates, rather than catering to local politicians.

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