With the looming introduction of a bill to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system, Governor’s spokesman Matt DeCample says discussions with concerend interest groups continue.
DeCample tells Talk Business that there are two primary areas of disagreement with prosecuting attorneys.
One area of impasse involves crimes such as negligent homicide and some battery crimes, which DeCample contends don’t result in many people going to prison now.
Another area involves changing the parole period for certain crimes, particularly drug crimes, to 120 days. DeCample said that a Pew Center study showed that on average these defendants are spending about 7 months in the prison system.
Under proper conditions of good behavior and other commitments, these criminals could qualify for less costly ankle monitoring punishment.
"That’s a way we could get rid of hundreds of currently-occupied beds for non-violent drug offenders and save those beds for more violent crime," DeCample said.
Some changes to criminal drug statutes have caused the most consternation between law enforcement and advocates of the reforms. DeCample acknowledged that the reform bill, which is expected to be filed this week, could make it more difficult for prosecutors to beef up charges on small possession drug users, but he argued it does not take away judicial or prosecutorial discretion.
"We don’t think the bill tampers with discretion. What it does do, to a degree, is shift the burden more toward what the prosecutors have to prove rather than what the defendents have to disprove. That gets into a second area where there is still some disagreement – and this is much more of a philosophical area where when it comes down to it, we may just have to agree to disagree," he said.
DeCample cited as an example that a defendant caught with a small amount of drugs – as little as one-fifth of a gram of methamphetamine – can currently be charged with "intent to deliver." This layering of additional charges is an example of what’s driving up the prison population, he argued.
When asked if this tact could be perceived as being soft on crime, DeCample responded, "We’ve said since the beginning that the effort of this bill is not to be soft on crime, but to be smart on crime."
"Can we say absolutely that every person who gets a reduced sentence, or different form of sentence, that they’re never going to do anything bad? Of course, we can’t. But on the flip side of that, I think you have to be ready and willing to face a lot of the fear that’s being put out there and a lot of the fear that I think just creeps up everytime you talk criminal justice issues," said DeCample.
According to the Pew research, in 2009 approximately 1,200 admissions into the state’s prison system of roughly 17,000 inmates were for non-violent crimes, says DeCample. That equates to nearly 7% of the total inmate population.
Gov. Mike Beebe is interested in curtailing the spiraling costs of prison growth, which could add as much as $1.1 billion to prison expenses over the next decade.
When asked if Beebe might use his executive clemency powers more liberally to address the problem, DeCample said it was doubtful. In his first four years in office, Beebe has only issued one clemency – a gubernatorial power that allows for reducing sentences.
"That’s not something he’s been looking at doing right now at all," said DeCample. "That, I think, would talk a lot more to the concerns you speak about for discretion for prosecutors and judges to have, if you have the Governor then stepping in and meddling with those sentences directly."
DeCample also concluded that this process won’t end with the 88th General Assembly. If successful, future legislatures will be asked to look at what’s working and what’s not. He added that Arkansas will continue to monitor other states, like Kansas and Texas, for best practices, too.
You can watch our full interview below.