Last week, Arkansas Governor and Right on Crime signatory emeritus Asa Hutchinson gave the keynote address at the Charles Koch Institute’s “Advancing Justice” summit in New Orleans.
As part of his opening remarks, Hutchinson stated that he’s been engaged in criminal justice reform in recent years, in part, to demonstrate to conservatives that the issue is worthy of their attention:
“[I wanted to] send a signal to conservatives across the country that it’s OK to engage in this debate. It’s OK to re-evaluate sentencing policies to make sure we get them right.”
He went on to discuss some of the challenges he’s faced since becoming governor, including one that many other state executives have faced in the last generation: a swelling prison population.
Hutchinson’s administration began, he explained, at a time when there were about 18,000 inmates in prison—a state of over-capacity—as well as a 3,000 prisoner backlog that had spilled into county jails, to the chagrin of sheriffs concerned about the dangerous situation that created.
In any attempt to ameliorate these concerns, a solution proposed by sheriffs and legislative leaders involved spending $100 million on the construction of a brand new prison. Hutchinson countered, tasking his Bureau of Prisons chief to provide three potential solutions; ones that accounted not only for needed prison space, but also to have “some alternatives to change behavior of our criminal population in Arkansas.”
State leaders eventually settled on a middle ground to building a new prison: $50 million would be dedicated to the expansion of a pre-existing prison, while $14 million would be diverted for alternative sentencing courts, particularly “drug treatment courts” for lower-level drug offenders.
For the first time in state history, money was also diverted to create new re-entry programs—which to that point, as Hutchinson stated, simply involved released offenders being given a bus pass and a $100 bill. Instead, the state has set aside 500 beds to provide various and sundry pre-release re-entry initiatives—from assisting with obtaining a driver’s license, to work training for future employment, and mental health monitoring. Such programming, Hutchinson explained, will foster increased public safety and reduced likelihood of recidivism, but also an opportunity to change people’s behavior.
As a result, according to the Governor, the backlog of prisoners into county jails has fallen by about 1,200, despite various aspects of the reform package still being fully implemented.
Video of these remarks, and more, from Gov. Hutchinson can be found below: