In 2010, Governor Mike Beebe asked me to be a part of a working group, made up of key stakeholders of the Arkansas legislature, judicial and executive branches and law enforcement, to study and report on sentencing and correction issues and to determine a strategy for slowing prison population growth. The group was facilitated by the PEW foundation.
A few facts on background here are important. From 1990 until 2010, Arkansas prison population had doubled, and in 2009 Arkansas had the eighth largest growth in prison population in the United States. Arkansas’ state spending had risen from $45 million (3 percent of general fund dollars) to $345 million (8 percent of general fund dollars). Without immediate and long-term action, the prison population was expected to grow as much as an additional 43 percent in the next decade, costing Arkansas tax payers an additional $1.1 billion.
During this lengthy study, we determined three drivers of prison population growth. Underutilization of adult probation, longer prison sentences for non-violent offenders and delaying transfer to parole.
Our working group focused primarily on enhancing public safety and secondarily on reducing state costs. As we deliberated potential legislation, we determined that strengthening community supervision and concentrating prison space for violent and career criminals would be the most effective direction.
In a recent report released to Governor Mike Beebe (Act 570 Report dated Dec. 13, 2012), we were able to already see very positive benefits to this legislation.
A few highlights worth mentioning:
• 95 percent reduction in county jail backup resulting in savings of approximately $1.5 million.
• Reduction of probationers committing felony offense of 3 percentage points or, on average, 100 probationers per month.
• Decrease in non-violent offenses by almost 3,000 per year.
Although Act 570 has only been in effect for about one year, it is having a positive impact on our corrections system. This means the number of folks who commit crimes, get out on probation and then go right back to prison for felony offense is down by 1,000. This is due in large part to an increase in the number of probation officers, the new administrative sanctions/tools that our probation officers have under Act 570 and the fine work of our corrections officials.
It is important to remember that ACT 570 did not reduce penalties or sentences for any violent crimes. Our effort was focused on making sure that the state had adequate resources to keep violent offenders in prison for the length of their sentence while at the same time giving our judges, law enforcement officers, prosecutors and parole and probation officers the tools necessary to keep our communities as safe and free of crime as possible.
Linda Tyler is the Democratic State Representative for District 45. You can reach her at email@example.com.