Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Packed prisons

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It seems like a recurring problem in Arkansas is that every time the state takes one step forward on something, we take two steps back. Too often any progress made toward a more healthy, educated and prosperous state is sabotaged by the powers that be. We had a moment of greatness with our bipartisan embrace of the expansion of health care to more Arkansans through the private option; now our elected officials are all too happy to end the program and watch our rural hospitals close. We were the first state in the Bible Belt to catch up with science and allow medical marijuana, only to see some legislators attempt to delay the new law and implement so many restrictions as to thwart the will of the voters. Real, long-term progress always eludes us. This same song and dance seems to hold true for criminal justice reform and the state's expanding prison population.

In 2011, it appeared we'd learned our lesson and realized the war on drugs was, at least in part, a failure. That year, the legislature passed Act 570, which lessened some of the state's tough drug laws, including ending the presumption that someone with a very small amount of cocaine or methamphetamine was a drug dealer and worthy of facing a life sentence. The act also repealed the ridiculous law that made it a felony to possess marijuana for the second time, even an amount as small as a joint. (Governor Hutchinson should issue a collective pardon for those with that second offense marijuana felony on their record, but I'm not holding my breath).

During that same 2011 session, the legislature, true to form, took a step back by changing the drug paraphernalia statute so that possessing a single plastic bag of drugs could result in a harsher punishment for the bag than the actual drugs themselves. From my experience as an attorney, I know that some prosecutors refused to charge the higher offense for the bag. However, too many didn't think twice about it, despite how silly the law seemed to anyone with any sense. It wasn't until the 2017 session that Rep. Jana Della Rosa (R-Rogers) sponsored a bill fixing the wording of the law and setting things at least somewhat right.

Meanwhile, the same old story held true during the rest of the 2017 session. While a few legislators tried to enact some bipartisan reform, such as ending life sentences for juveniles and attempting to limit the driver's license suspensions that trap too many people in an endless cycle of jail and fines, others, like Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado), Reps. Bob Ballinger (R-Berryville) and Kim Hammer (R-Benton), tried to create new crimes in an effort to regulate free speech and assembly. Never mind this was in direct contradiction to the GOP's principles of promoting smaller government and, you know, liberty and freedom. Sen. Bryan King (R-Green Forest) proposed a three-strikes-you're-out parole bill that would have been disastrous to any effort to reduce our inmate population, one that's too large because we can't seem to break the cycle of using prison in place of effective drug rehab and mental health treatment.

With the recent depressing news that Arkansas leads the nation in the percentage of children who have a parent or guardian incarcerated, the time is now to stop trying to piece together criminal justice reform here and there, or else we will end up with another generation of Arkansans locked up in overcrowded prisons. We need real, comprehensive reform starting with an overhaul of the bail bond system for pre-trial inmates. We need better services and opportunities for parolees. We need pre-K for all who want it. We need beds for those needing drug rehab and mental health treatment. The new crisis stabilization centers are a good start in ending the warehousing of mentally ill inmates in our county jails, but we still have a long way to go.

As we learned from this last legislative session, this isn't just a progressive issue. Fiscal conservatives are natural allies on reform if they can get past the impulse to punish rather than rehabilitate and abandon the tough-on-crime posturing that is red meat for much of their base. Voters seem to respond just as well or better to talk of county government saving money on jail costs. Legislators will have to go beyond relying on law enforcement and prosecutors to determine how to handle the prison crisis. To find out how to help get more people out of the criminal justice system, they must reach out and listen to those in the trenches: public defenders, social workers, mental health specialists and addiction counselors. And instead of hiding from knowledge and statistics, they should support legislation such as the racial impact study bill championed by Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) to find out if proposed laws will actually help as intended or, instead, act to further the racial disparities that absolutely exist in our justice system.

The bottom line is that we have to radically change the way we think about addiction, punishment, and rehabilitation. Small changes to existing laws and policies won't cut it. We can continue to lock people up because it makes us feel good to be tough, or we can implement real criminal justice reform and finally discover how much better it feels to be smart.


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