Column: Prison reform and the GOP

My Arkansas News Bureau column this week discusses the need to halt the growth rate in the state’s prison population and asks what the new Republicans in the Legislature are willing to do about it. Arkansas’ population, and the money it spends on it, are both rising at unsustainable rates. A panel has proposed a set of reforms, but the issue will be easy to demagogue on law and order grounds.

Will newly elected Republicans come to the table and be consistent with the GOP’s small-government-is-better philosophy? Or will they do as the national Republicans have done: tout small government but never actually offer any real, specific cuts.

I’ll be watching. I hope others are as well.

Here is the column.

10 thoughts on “Column: Prison reform and the GOP

  1. “The idea is to incarcerate dangerous criminals and deal otherwise with those who are mostly just irresponsible, such as those guilty of minor drug offenses or technical parole violations.”
    -There are no one incarcerated in prison in Arkansas due to “Minor” drug offenses.
    -If your parole is revoked, which is rare, you only go back to ADC for 6 months and you automatically come back out. A hearing examiner may request special permission from the parole board to have a parole revocation of 1 year, but that is EXTREMELY rare. So neither group is not taking up a substantial amount of prison space. I saw that in the commission’s report and it is not based in fact.

    Here is a thought; Government can’t reduce crime by releasing prisoners. That only reduces the amount of prisoners in ADC. DCC is already doing that and crime is on the rise in Arkansas. The only way government can reduce crimes is to incarcerate people who break the law.

  2. P.S.

    NO ONE is in prison in Arkansas because they “are mostly just irresponsible” either. It’s is quite difficult to get sent to prison in Arkansas and the people who are there are really, really, really bad people. Multiple time offenders and dangerous people who do not deserve to be in society around our wives and children. A person who sells drugs in his own community is a really bad person and deserves to be punished. A drug manufacter who makes drug to sell is a really bad person.

  3. Hi, timetorun.

    Thanks for reading and replying. Your posts are great – well-informed, factually-based, and civil. You do make me think critically about the issue.

    I’m going to look up the numbers some time and get the exact percentage of prisoners who are involved in parole violations, etc. As for “minor” drug offenses, I guess it depends on how we define “minor.”

    I definitely disagree with you that the only way government can reduce crimes is to incarcerate all the lawbreakers. Incarceration puts rookie lawbreakers into “crime school” with hardened criminals.

    A number of states have decreased their incarceration rates and seen lower crime rates at the same time. Texas reduced its prison population, and crime is the lowest its been since 1973. New York decreased its incarceration rate by 16 percent while Florida increased its by 16 percent. Guess which one has seen lower crime rates: New York.

    Here’s where I got the information.

    At any rate, the larger point is this: If we want prison space, we’re going to have to pay for it. And I don’t think we’re willing to do that.

  4. Always nice to have an intelligent debate.

    “I’m going to look up the numbers some time and get the exact percentage of prisoners who are involved in parole violations, etc. As for “minor” drug offenses, I guess it depends on how we define “minor.”

    -That is true, I don’t define drug dealers or drug manufactures minor criminals, maybe others due. The families of those affected by illegal drugs don’t think so either. Good luck getting honest numbers from DCC. Rhonda Sharp is notorious for her inability to be honest.

    “ Incarceration puts rookie lawbreakers into “crime school” with hardened criminals.”
    -The notion that people go to prison and come out better criminals is false. What does a person in prison for murder learn about murder in prison that makes him a better murderer? What about a rapist? What about a DWI offender? The truth is a majority of individuals in prison in Arkansas already surrounds themselves with people who have very little respect for the law in the free world. They have a better chance of learning to be better criminals on the outside. The people in prison aren’t very good at applying their trade…or they would not be in prison for it.
    “A number of states have decreased their incarceration rates and seen lower crime rates at the same time.”
    Drug courts work. ISP (Intensive Supervision Programs) programs work. Electronic monitoring works. Those states have MUCH better state parole program we have here in Arkansas. Those programs work because they have definite consequences for an offender’s action. You screw up your done. DCC with their permissive, soft on crime, “Hug a thug” mentality could never administer those programs over a period of time with any success. DCC is a mess. It’s a mess created by Gov Huckabee. Gov Beebe has done nothing to fix the problem and this prison reform is not the right answer.

  5. A lot of those things you’re talking about that do work are in the recommendations, such as drug courts and electronic monitoring. And the report includes a lot of reforms in the parole system. So why are you so against the concept?

  6. I have the report and actually agree with some of the recommendations. I like the idea to require certain criteria to be appointed to the parole board and to have mandatory training for parole board members. I would venture to guess that the PEW people meet with the parole board and saw some of the real deficiencies in some of the people nominated by Gov Huckabee.
    I am against any “reform” or concept that makes Arkansas more dangerous than it already is. I am for drug court because I have seen it work and because Judges run it and not DCC. Electronic monitoring will not work in Arkansas. Paying DCC for low recidivism rates will not work. Earned discharge for offenders will not work in Arkansas. DCC is incapable of administering these programs with integrity or honesty. There is NO accountability with that agency. It has always been a numbers game with DCC. It’s three card Monty, a shell game. It has never been about public safety and it won’t be with the administration they have in place. The concept of parole was to reward people for good behavior while incarcerated. Now it an automatic release for criminals who don’t deserve or need to be in society.

  7. I’d be interested to hear more about the administration and workings of the DCC. I’ve read that many of our police departments have little faith in it (and it sounds like timetorun doesn’t either). I’m for all the programs mentioned but whether or not they are in capable hands that can realistically handle them is a good question. And I doubt that if anything is passed that they are going to examine the competency of the DCC first, since that would be a whole other can of worms.

    The prison as “crime school” concept is something I’ve seen in many movies. “Blow” comes to mind (“I went in with my bachelors in marijuana and came out with my masters in cocaine” or something along those lines). Many of these are based on true stories but they are still movies so I’d hesitate to put much stock in them. Rather than better criminals, I wonder if prison tends to be a place that allows the first time offenders to plug into certain networks. Gang affiliations or even just criminal connections certainly don’t die once a person goes to jail.

  8. Thanks for responding, Linton. Both you and timetorun have made some good, thoughtful points, which is refreshing considering all the hateful invective that usually passes for political discourse these days.

    I think if we’re going to do anything, the DCC needs to be carefully studied. I used to work for Lt. Governor Rockefeller, and he would say that the education system is like a set of water pipes that are laid out roughly end to end but not connected. I think if you “reform prisons” but leave DCC untouched, you don’t solve the problem.

  9. Welcome Linton,
    Thanks you for bringing up a real problem in this debate and that is that a lot of people can’t seperate TV from real life.

    Because of the way crime is portrayed in both the news media and popular entertainment, many Americans have been conditioned to think crime like, lets say like murder is a crime to which everyone is equally susceptible. TV detective dramas especially present this distorted perspective, because the element of surprise usually requires that the killer be someone unsuspected — the apparently upstanding citizen whose hidden motive for murder is uncovered in the final 10 minutes of the hour-long mystery.
    The man-bites-dog angle in journalism means that when a murder is committed by a previously law-abiding person, this fact will be highlighted in news coverage. And sometimes, as in the Sam Shepard murder, the criminal background of the killers will mostly be ignored by media focused on more “newsworthy” elements of the crime.

    Contrary to media distortions, criminality is not evenly distributed throughout the population. A small and fairly distinct group of career criminals — recidivists, habitual violators, call them what you will — account for the majority of serious crime in America. This fact was best illustrated in the early 1990s, when transit policy in New York City decided to crack down on subway turnstile-jumpers and discovered that about 15 percent of those apprehended were wanted on warrants for major felonies, including armed robbery, rape and murder.

  10. I’m enjoying the blog and both your comments. That’s an interesting figure on the jumpers. Did they determine that the other 85 percent were from Boston?

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