In a little more than a week, Arkansans are going to read and hear a lot of the details regarding prison reform measures emerging from a Pew Center study on the issue.
Administration and legislative leaders say that the changes to be presented as a formal solution involve a voluminous section of the Arkansas code. The bill being drafted will be comprehensive entailing 120 pages or more.
Arkansas’ prisons are busting at the seams – more so than other states – and finding creative and pragmatic solutions to the public safety and budget complications of sentencing alterations, freeing up maximum security prison beds, and curtailing costs is a priority for the 88th General Assembly and Gov. Mike Beebe.
Several stakeholder groups, such as the Arkansas Sheriffs Association and Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police, have endorsed the Pew study’s consensus report, which outlines the problems and potential scenarios of action or inaction.
Other groups are being courted to throw their support to the massive reform of the criminal justice system. While largely embracing changes being discussed – such as more drug courts, drug testing, and parole changes for prisoners with terminal illnesses – prosecuting attorneys and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel have publicly and privately expressed concerns with proposals to alter sentencing standards related to serious drug offenders.
Many stakeholders want to see the draft legislation before committing a position.
Politically, all groups are guarded against a public perception that changes may equate to being "soft on crime." It is a dynamic that lawmakers acknowledge will be a sensitive one during the upcoming legislative debate.
At the crux of the debate is a budget dilemma. The Pew study estimates that Arkansas’ prison costs are on course to rise by $128 million annually for the next 10 years – more than a billion dollars in the next decade – an unsustainable and unaffordable level for the state without severe cuts to government services or the unpopular prospect of raising taxes to fund increased costs.
State prison officials have been approached by parishes in northern Louisiana that have overbuilt jail space and want to fill beds while they’re empty. They can house Arkansas prisoners for roughly $28 a day, a cost much cheaper than Arkansas can provide.
A bill is expected next week that would authorize the Arkansas Department of Corrections to negotiate with out-of-state political subdivisions – i.e. Louisiana’s parishes and prison system – to contract prison beds.
MORE THAN A BAND-AID
However, the Louisiana strategy for Arkansas’ prisoner backlog is a short-term band-aid.
While the prison reform debate will involve a number of variables across the criminal justice system spectrum, alternative sentencing will be a key component.
State leaders say that finding ways to punish less violent criminals – especially small-scale drug offenders and those convicted of property theft crimes – can be done through an overhaul of the probation system, a highlight of the January 2011 Pew Center report.
"An extensive review of data revealed that the state is underutilizing probation, imposing longer prison sentences for non-violent offenses, and delaying transfer to parole," the study declared.
An emerging technology comes up frequently in off-the-record conversations with those involved in the probation and parole aspects of the debate: electronic monitoring devices.
A COMPONENT, NOT THE SOLUTION
In use for more than a decade, these high-tech ankle (and wrist) bracelets have advanced in a number of ways that allow law enforcement officials to monitor the whereabouts and activities of convicted criminals, although experts contend that the programs don’t work for all offenders.
States across the nation have used the devices for a number of different offenders: low flight-risk criminals, single-possession drug users, petty crime burglars, first-time sexual predators, terroristic threatening cases, young gang members and truants, and those under house arrest.
Some of the devices, which are usually made of black rubber and plastic, use commonplace global positioning system (GPS) technology. Others work off cell phones. Some use a radio signal which emits to a receiver and allows law enforcement to monitor when a signal fails – a sign that a violator has moved out of his or her allowed range or violated a condition of parole.
But electronic monitoring devices can do even more these days. Companies have developed devices that can detect what is in a defendant’s body.
Using "transdermal" technology, a bracelet can test for alcohol or detect drugs like marijuana or methamphetamine through a defendant’s skin. It can also monitor body temperature to determine if a user is tampering with the device.
The possibilities for using these electronic devices to monitor a criminal’s return to society would obviously free up high-security bed space in the state prison system, but experts warn they are not for everyone.
Crime-fighters say the devices won’t work after a certain level of repeat offenses because they’re not deterring behavior.
Also, cost can be a factor. The devices can be leased and offenders are typically charged a fee of $5 to $10 a day during their probationary period, which ultimately covers the investment. Low-income defendants often can’t foot the bill over a sustained period of time.
When the monitoring devices do work with the right lower-level offenders, they can generate huge cost savings, an appeal on which state lawmakers will focus. For example, state and county budgets can avoid major medical costs for defendants with health problems not being housed in a jail unit.
Behind bars, the state or counties pay medical expenses, which can quickly reach tens of thousands of dollars per prisoner. With electronic monitoring devices, perpetrators are on their own to pay for health care – saving state and county jail budgets millions of dollars a year in medical expenses.
Examples like this will be the primary focus of state policy makers who desire to slow the growth of the expected budget burden on the state’s prison system. It is an experiment that other states have embarked upon with positive results, but for Arkansas legislators and the Governor it’s still a high-stakes policy gamble.