In 2011, Arkansas passed major criminal justice reform legislation. SB 750, which was signed by Governor Mike Beebe on March 22, 2011, diverted a greater number of drug users to treatment and accountability courts (which were expanded under the bill) and prioritized Arkansas’s limited prison space for drug manufacturers. The bill also strengthened parole and probation in the state.
The bill was the product of a working group of Arkansas state leaders who engaged in a thoughtful effort to analyze sentencing data, audit corrections and community supervision policies, and forge consensus on a package of reforms to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and contain corrections costs.
Over the past 20 years, Arkansas’s population has increased by slightly more than 10 percent, but the state’s prison population has increased by more than 100 percent. This dramatic increase has come at a significant cost to state taxpayers. Annual corrections spending skyrocketed from $45 million in 1990 to $349 million in 2010. Arkansas spends eight percent of its budget on corrections, compared to the national average of 6.7 percent.1
Despite this growth in prison population and spending, Arkansans were getting a poor return on their public safety dollars. Recidivism and crime rates remained stubbornly high. Of the 27,174 adults who entered probation from 2004 to 2006, 21.7 percent returned to jail within three years.2
SB 750 put an emphasis on prioritizing prison space for violent offenders, while utilizing community supervision alternatives for non-violent offenders. These reforms could potentially realize extraordinary savings because probation and parole cost $1.64 per offender per day — a fraction of the cost of prison, which is $57.14 per day.3
The state’s leaders have much work remaining, but the early results from SB 750 suggest that the legislation was a step in the right direction. In 2011, parole revocations in Arkansas dropped by almost 30%, and probation revocations dropped by 15%.4
Another step in the right direction is Arkansas’s network of 39 drug courts, which had 1,664 participants in 2008. At their core, drug courts emphasize the fundamental conservative value of accountability. Offenders who are willing to be accountable for their actions are given an opportunity to succeed. A study by the Arkansas Department of Community Correction found a recidivism rate of only 5.7 percent among Arkansas drug court graduates.5