Thursday, June 10, 2010

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – The growth of the state prison system is unsustainable, the governor and the chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court said during an announcement of a far-reaching study of methods to change sentencing laws.

The study will be finished by the fall, when legislators prepare next year's budgets for all state agencies, including the Correction Department. According to the governor, the inmate population is expected to exceed 21,000 within the next 10 years. Building new prisons to house those inmates, along with the costs of operating the additional prisons, will cost an estimated $1.1 billion between now and 2020.

The Pew Center on the States will conduct the study, in cooperation with state and local officials. The Pew Center will use consultants with experience in prison and sentencing issues.

The growth in the prison population affects not only the state budget but those of counties too. When state prisons are too overcrowded they cannot accept new inmates who have just been convicted. Those new convicts remain in county jails until there is available space in state prison units, resulting in overcrowded county jails. The result is that many offenders are not locked up after their arrest and are released on bond.

The challenge is to make sure violent offenders are securely locked up for the duration of their sentences. Non-violent offenders could be sentenced to alternative forms of punishment.

Many states are looking into alternatives for drug offenders. Inmates in many states now earn good time if they successfully complete drug rehabilitation. Drug courts can expunge the records of defendants who prove they have quit using illegal drugs.

A large percentage of inmates are behind bars because they were convicted of drug related crimes. However, it is important to make a clear distinction between inmates who were convicted for possession of illegal drugs for personal use, and inmates who robbed or assaulted people to get money for their drug addiction.

Pointing a gun at someone to get money for drugs is a violent crime. Robbing people is even more dangerous when the robber is high on drugs or strung out due to withdrawal from addictive drugs.

Burglary and theft are much more common than robbery. Last year 946 inmates were admitted to Arkansas prison units for burglary, 655 for theft and 333 for robbery. Abuse of controlled substances accounted for 2,050 inmate sentences.

In a related matter, prison officials from Arkansas and seven other states are working on an agreement on probationers and parolees who move from one state to another. The lack of a clear agreement came to light last November when a parolee from Arkansas killed four policemen in Washington, in a suburb of Tacoma.

The killer had a criminal record in both Arkansas and Washington, but he was out on bond at the time he shot and killed the four police officers.

One proposal would require states to take back parolees when they violate parole in other states, such as failing to report to a parole officer. A similar proposal would require states to take back parolees who commit a violent offense.

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