Columns » Ernest Dumas

Politics stymies prison reform

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"Prison scandal" and "Arkansas" enjoy so much historical equivalence that you would expect the state to be on the cutting edge of the prison- and sentencing-reform movement that is sweeping the country from Washington to state capitals and cheered along by Republicans and Democrats alike. But Arkansas is back a far piece, if it is there at all.

When it comes to barbarity and injustice in corrections, we are pained by a more sordid past than any state except maybe Mississippi. There was the old system of convict leasing, when the state rounded up blacks, imprisoned them sometimes long after their terms ended, and rented them out as slaves to coal companies and railroads, which bed them in cattle cars or chained to trees. Fed up with the abuses, Gov. George Donaghey emptied the penitentiary of half its prisoners. Frequent minor abuses caught the country's fancy, like the widespread lockup of Seventh Day Adventists (not real Christians in the popular mind) for fixing a wagon brake or picking peaches on Sunday in violation of the state's strict laws on observing the Sabbath, or the punishment of Jehovah's Witnesses (likewise) during the world wars for not respecting the flag or the draft. Of more recent vintage, there was the infamous Tucker Telephone, an old crank magneto attached to prisoners' genitals at Cummins Prison during the Faubus days that alternated with the strap as the way to redeem remorseless cons, and the shocking Cummins graves of 1968, which were either the burial site of murdered escapees or a potter's field.

All right, I mentioned all those only to pique your interest in the boring topic of going soft on crime, which has always been the popular reaction to movements to reform sentencing, parole and penology, and likely will be again.

Admittedly, the current groundswell is different from the modest ones of the past, mainly for its diversity. It began as a right-wing Republican movement and attracted Democrats like President Obama along the way. It stands out on the current political landscape as about the only bipartisan drive in the land, on anything. It's had only modest success — well, sure, California — and may not have much more, but it is worth considering for how society might profit from it, especially Arkansas.

The driving truth for conservatives like the Koch brothers was the knowledge that the United States has 5 percent of the world's population but houses a fourth of all the imprisoned people on earth, is still the most dangerous of all advanced societies, and spends more money incarcerating people than everywhere else combined.

This all started with Patrick J. Nolan, the tough-on-crime Republican House leader in California who got caught soliciting a bribe in a sting operation 22 years ago and spent a spell in the pen. He met scores of despairing men serving long sentences for relatively minor crimes, thanks to repeat-offender laws that most states, including Arkansas, passed years ago. He set up the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation in Washington and before long had the billionaire Kochs and leading conservatives like Newt Gingrich and senators like John Cornyn of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Charles Grassley of Iowa on board.

Last month, they pushed a modest sentencing-reform bill through the Senate Judiciary Committee 15 to 5, although Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may never allow a vote in the Senate because it might blur the party's image as the scourge of criminals. He feared Democrats might pull a Willie Horton on them.

In a party caucus, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, whose every calculus is to be the toughest guy in Washington, denounced the bill because he said it would turn thousands of violent felons loose on the public. Grassley and Cornyn said Cotton had no clue what the bill did. But wrong as he was, Cotton demonstrated why this stuff rarely passes and, when it does, the first spectacular crime will be its undoing. Former Gov. Mike Beebe achieved a modest parole reform in 2012, but the next year, when parolee Darrell Dennis was charged with murder after multiple felony arrests did not cause his parole to be revoked, the state instantly toughened parole policies and the prison population soared again.

Get-tough-on-crime passions swell at least once every decade, particularly since President Nixon used it so effectively in 1968. The Arkansas legislature jumped on the issue and in 1975 and 1977 enacted laws stiffening penalties for all kinds of offenses and stacking sentences for repeat offenders. Other states did the same, often passing laws that put you in jail for the rest of your life for three offenses and repeatedly lengthening sentences for drug possession or dealing. New law-and-order rounds followed in the '80s and '90s.

When the legislature passed the first tough crime act in 1975, Terrell Don Hutto, the Texas penologist Gov. Dale Bumpers brought in to run the prisons, warned legislators of figures showing how the inmate population and costs would skyrocket.

Arkansas spent $4 million running prisons in 1975, and it soared to $9.6 million in three years. Arkansas is not much bigger now than in 1975, but last year the state government spent $418 million on corrections and another $100 million on assorted crime programs.

Gov. Hutchinson works on packages to relieve the crisis, paying Bowie County, Texas, to house a raft of cons. He seems to yearn for the sentencing reform movement to settle here, but no politician wants to take it on. One former legislator, yes.

Dennis Young of Texarkana, a now-regretful sponsor of the state's three-strikes law, left the state Pardons and Parole Board last year convinced from his parole work that he and other lawmakers had gravely miscalculated for decades. One incident symbolizes his conversion. After a parole hearing last year at Cummins for an inmate who was serving five years for selling cocaine, Young asked an inmate who carried his files to his car about the prisoner's own crime. He had sold less than two grams of cocaine. Hang in there, Young said, you'll be out before you know it and can rebuild your life. "No, Mr. Young, you don't understand," he said. "I got a 47-year-sentence." It was his third offense.

"Because of our current laws, which I helped pass," Young said, "taxpayers will continue to pay more than $20,000 a year to keep that individual incarcerated. Go figure."

Tom Cotton can tell him. That's the way it's going to be.

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