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Right on Crime | August 31, 2011
Arkansas’s prison population doubled in the past two decades, and corrections costs have jumped eight hundred percent — now costing the state $353 million per annum, an all-time high. Governor Mike Beebe recently called upon the Pew Center on the States to evaluate the problem and recommend solutions to help the ailing state. Last week, the Pew Center released its findings and recommendations.
Pew found that Arkansas has been increasing sentence lengths for non-violent offenses consistently for the past twenty years, and it has “depart[ed] substantially from the voluntary sentencing guidelines and delay[ed] transfer of inmates to parole.” Arkansas’s probation rate is 23% below the national average, while the state’s incarceration rate stands at 522 prisoners per 100,000 residents (compared with the national average of 502).
Following the completion’s research, the Pew Center assisted the Arkansas Working Group on Sentencing and Corrections to craft a reform strategy that could correct these problems within the corrections system. Their meetings culminated in The Public Safety Improvement Act, which operates on a standard justice reinvestment model: money is redirected toward community-based probation and prevention programs that reduce crime and recidivism. This leads to a decline in prison populations, which saves taxpayer dollars, and then later, a portion of this money is redirected to strengthen the programs that work best, while the poorly performing programs are eliminated.
Specifically, the act requires vastly improved data collection systems, increased accountability for probationers, an improved parole release process, expansion of electronic parole monitoring for low-level offenders, and expanded eligibility for drug court programs. It also recommends rehabilitation of longtime drug abusers rather than keeping them imprisoned for extended periods of time. Lastly, the act clearly states that violent and career criminals will remain in prison, where they belong.
The Public Safety Improvement Act passed both legislative chambers, and it was signed into law by Gov. Beebe in March of this year. The legislation is projected by Pew to save the state a net $875 million in averted prison construction and operations costs over the next nine years.