Ark. Overhauls Sentencing, Probation Measures

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Gov. Mike Beebe recently signed into law an overhaul of Arkansas sentencing and probation programs aimed at reducing the state’s growing prison population, but he was uncertain how much of an impact the reforms would have.

"This is kind of new territory," Beebe said after signing the 167-page bill at the state Capitol. "We don’t know if this is going to work for sure. Just by anecdotal evidence, you know it’s going to have some effect. Is it going to have as much effect as everyone hopes or desires? Nobody knows."

The proposal is aimed at curbing Arkansas’ prison growth by reducing sentences for some lower-level offenses and expanding the state’s probation and parole programs. A study commissioned by the state last year projects that, if left unchecked, Arkansas would have to spend an additional $1.1 billion over the next decade for its inmates.

The state?s prison population has doubled in the past 20 years to more than 16,000 inmates.

The bill is expected to cost $9.4 million to implement by adding drug courts and more probation and parole officers. Part of the funding would come from raising the monthly fee from $25 to $35 for people on parole, probation or in alternative sentencing programs.

Beebe has already included the increased spending for the prison system in his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. He said he wants the prison system’s budget to be included in the top priority category along with public schools in the proposed Revenue Stabilization Act, which sets funding priorities based on expected revenues.

Beebe and legislative leaders began negotiations over the weekend on the proposed act, which is the last major piece of legislation typically handled during the session.

Most of the law follows recommendations issued by a working group that Beebe formed to study the prison system. The Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States has projected the legislation will save the state $875 million in prison construction and additional operation expenses over the next decade.

Beebe said he did not know how quickly the state would see the impact. The governor said lawmakers in future sessions may need to make changes to the law.

"I think this is a work in progress," Beebe said. "I don’t think this is the end of the story. I think we have to continue to watch this whole process. It?s like any other major change in the law. It will undoubtedly require some tweaking, amending, changing as we go forward."