Criminal justice reform bill faces skepticism in Senate committee

Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock)
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock)


An omnibus bill that sponsors say would curb the rapid growth of Arkansas prisons without sacrificing public safety received a cool reception from the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Senate Bill 136 has been in committee for weeks as Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock), chairman of the committee and lead sponsor of the bill, has been working with state prosecutors and other groups to address concerns.

Sen. Hutchinson also co-chaired the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force, which met regularly last year to hear reports from Justice Center, a project of the national nonprofit Council of State Governments. Justice Center calls its approach Justice Reinvestment, which it describes as "a data-driven approach to reduce corrections spending and reinvest savings in strategies that can decrease recidivism and increase public safety." The group came to Arkansas on the invitation of Governor Hutchinson and other state leaders.

Late last year, the task force approved Justice Center's policy recommendations, most of which are included in SB 136.

Sen. Hutchinson told the committee that other states have done a better job at operating their criminal justice systems than Arkansas, which has the fastest growing prison population in the country. “They have a lower crime rate. They have a lower recidivism rate. They spend less money per capita than we do. They achieve better results.”

He said projections by Justice Center and the Department of Correction’s consultant suggest Arkansas will be forced to spend $750 million on the prison and parole system by 2022. The Departments of Correction and Community Correction spent more than $500 million in FY2015.

“If we model the same kind of success other states have had … we’ll also achieve a safer community, and we can divert those savings to even stronger supervision with more probation and parole officers,” Sen. Hutchinson said.

Sen. Hutchinson spent much of his time before the committee on Wednesday highlighting SB 136’s most consequential and controversial piece — a plan to send parolees and probationers to community correction facilities when they commit relatively small violations of the terms of their supervision.

“We don’t have enough tools in our quiver of arrows to really manage and control this population,” Hutchinson said of probationers and parolees. The only means currently available is revocation of probation or parole, which is not widely effective, he said.

According to Justice Center analysis, in FY2015, of the more than 10,000 people admitted to prison during that time, almost 7,200 were people who had their parole or probation revoked. Forty-seven percent of those parole violators and 35 percent of those probation violators did not have a new felony arrest while under supervision. On average, that group of parole violators spent 9 months in prison and that group of probation violators spent 11 months.

SB 136 would employ swift and certain sanctioning, where parolees and probationers who fail a drug test, break curfew or commit another minor violation of the terms of their supervision would be sent to a community correction facility. There they would get rehabilitative programming for up to 90 days or as few as 45 days if they received the maximum amount of credit for good behavior. After three trips to a community correction facility, a person under supervision who committed a new violation would be subject to having their parole or probation revoked and would likely go to prison. A similar arrangement would apply to those parolees or probationers who commit a nonviolent or nonsexual misdemeanor, but they would be required to stay 180 days — or as few as 90 days if they are credited for good behavior — and would be subject to revocation after their second stint.

Sen. Hutchinson said the new plan would free up 1,600 prison beds. “That’s the equivalent of a huge new prison. Now we have a lot more beds for people who need to do be there and are threats to society.”

SB 136 would also require crisis intervention training for law enforcement. Officers with training would be able to respond to someone having a mental health episode and deescalate the situation, said Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock), a co-sponsor of the bill. SB 136 also creates Crisis Stabilization Units, where people having behavioral health episodes would receive treatment. Tucker said studies have shown that when someone goes to jail following a mental health crisis, their recidivism rate is 80 percent. When they go to a CSU, it drops to 20 percent, he said.

Governor Hutchinson has proposed $5 million in his budget to support the opening of three crisis stabilization units. Tucker said he didn’t know yet where the facilities would be located, but they would likely serve a multi-county area.

Sen. Bryan King (R-Green Forest), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he was skeptical the state had the money to pay for the CSUs.

Sen. Hutchinson said policymakers had made too many decisions based on yesterday’s news headline.

“For 50 years we’ve gone through this cycle where we just react. We lock everybody up. We let everybody out. We lock everybody up. We let everybody out. It’s high time we start using data and making rational decisions and using models that have worked and put some thought into managing the system.”

Bryan Chesshir, the prosecuting attorney for the 9th Judicial District West in Nashville, said the state prosecutors’ association disputed some of the cost-saving projections from Justice Center, but had agreed to remain neutral on the bill.

Sen. Linda Collins-Smith (R-Pocahontas) told Sen. Hutchinson she was concerned about the new parole and probation policies applying to people who were originally charged with violent felonies. “There’s a lot there that I’m just not comfortable with,” she said of the bill.

After more than an hour or questioning, Sen. Hutchinson said he wouldn’t ask for a vote on SB 136 until next week.

Ibby Caputo contributed to this report.

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.