To reduce prison growth, remember Texas

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

There’s much that policymakers don’t agree about these days, but something like a consensus is emerging about one issue: criminal sentencing reform.

Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, moderates, President Obama, people who don’t like President Obama – many of them agree the United States imprisons too many people, and they even agree why that’s bad. Liberals agree with conservatives that locking up 2.3 million people nationwide is a waste of money. Many conservatives agree with liberals that it’s a waste of lives.

So we might actually get somewhere on this one.

Here’s the extent of the problem in Arkansas, as explained Monday by the Council of State Governments Justice Center to the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force. The Council is a national nonprofit organization. The task force is a group of Arkansas legislators, law enforcers, attorneys and judges who are considering reforms.

From 2012-14, Arkansas had the country’s fastest growing prison population. In 2013, the state imprisoned 14,825 people. Then a parolee, Darrell Dennis, kidnapped and murdered a man, and reforms were enacted that kept many parolees of all types in prison. Two years later, the population is now 17,977.

And that’s a problem, because Arkansas only has a prison capacity of 15,416. The excess typically has been farmed out to county jails, and now the state is renting space in a Texas jail that has room for them. More about Texas in a minute.

The Council of State Governments’ Andy Barbee told the task force that Arkansas’ spending on corrections has ballooned from $300 million in 2004 to $512 million in 2015. At that rate, Arkansas will have 25,448 inmates by 2025 and will need to spend $680 million to house the excess, or it could also spend $602 million to build more prisons.

Those cost estimates assume present trends will continue, which they might not. As noted by Ken Casady, a Saline County prosecuting attorney and task force member, the 3,000-inmate increase since 2013 might simply be a one-time spike caused by the parole reforms after the Darrell Dennis case.

Still, prison costs undoubtedly are rising rapidly while other costs, such as health care, are increasing, too. There’s also a task force to study that issue, as well as one looking under the state’s couch cushions for more money for highways. I wish they could have found some before a pothole on I-40 bent my rim and lost my hubcap Sunday.

Following the task force meeting was a panel discussion at the Clinton School of Public Service. It was organized by The Coalition for Public Safety, whose partners range across the political spectrum from the NAACP and the ACLU to conservative groups including Americans for Tax Reform and Freedom Works.

Its funders include Republican backers Charles and David Koch, who’ve been investing a lot of money and political capital on this issue lately. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, in fact, spoke at one of their shindigs in New Orleans last month about Arkansas’ beginning reform efforts.

The panel included former Rep. Jerry Madden, one of the architects of Texas’ successful prison reform package passed in 2007. Madden, who described himself multiple times as a conservative, said he had no experience with criminal justice when the Texas speaker of the House asked him to take charge with a simple eight-word directive: “Don’t build new prisons. They cost too much.”

At the time, Texas had on the table a half-a-billion-dollar prison construction project. Instead, the ultimate law-and-order, remember-the-Alamo state enacted reforms and spent a quarter of a billion dollars on community supervision. Madden said the state stopped wasting money on efforts that don’t work and spent more on things that did, like addiction programs. He said that while violent criminals should be incarcerated, other solutions can be found for “knuckleheads” – minor drug offenders, hot check writers, etc. In other words, the people we’re mad at, not scared of. Those people need a behavior change, not a lengthy prison sentence.

Now, Texas’ crime rate is the lowest it has been since the 1960s. Arkansas’ crime rate is dropping, too, though not as fast. But unlike Arkansas, Texas’ prison population is falling to the point that it’s actually closed three of its prisons.

The consensus developing among policymakers will have to filter down to the public. No political candidate wants to be accused of being soft on crime. But no one should be. Most of us agree the bad guys should be locked up. The knuckleheads? Remember Texas.

Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at brawnersteve@mac.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.

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