A year’s worth of work and a session’s worth of negotiations led Gov. Mike Beebe to a major legislative victory – one that will certainly be tied to his administration’s legacy.
On Tuesday, Beebe signed into law SB 750, the Public Safety Improvement Act, a bill the Governor has argued was critical to slowing the growth of prison budgets and crucial to reforming the state’s criminal justice system.
"I think this is a work in progress. I don’t think this is the end of this story," Beebe said. "It will undoubtedly require some tweaking and changing as we go forward."
The 167-page bill underwent major changes after objections on sentencing guidelines were raised by prosecuting attorneys. The Governor acquiesced on several of their key issues leading to smooth sailing in the General Assembly.
The bill aims to curtail the growth in prison spending in Arkansas by as much as $875 million during the next decade.
It would reduce penalties for non-violent crimes and attempts to steer future non-violent offenders to alternative prison terms freeing up critical bed space for more violent offenders.
Approximately 8,900 of the state’s current prison population of 16,200 are incarcerated for non-violent crimes. That means about 7,300 are being held for violent offenses such as murder, rape, kidnapping and other charges.
State Senator Jim Luker (D-Wynne) led the prison reform debate in the State Senate and Rep. Darrin Williams (D-Little Rock) steered the bill through the House. Both men are chairmen of their chambers’ Judiciary Committees.
Beebe said that he would gauge success of the initiatives on metrics such as lowering recidivism rates, seeing success in drug courts, and the numbers coming down on non-violent offenders in high-security prisons.
"I don’t know if we’ll know within a year, 18 months, two years. You hope we’ll see some trends," said Beebe. "Is it going to have as much effect as we hope? We don’t know."