LITTLE ROCK — Two years after Arkansas’ prison reform law went into effect, some lawmakers and law enforcement officials are still grumbling about measures like reducing penalties for meth manufacturing and doubling the monetary threshold for felony theft.
They say those changes and some others that were intended to ease chronic prison overcrowding and lower costs may have gone too far, and they are contemplating changes to the law to address their concerns in the upcoming regular legislative session.
"I think there is some frustration with some in the law enforcement community," said Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, after a recent meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee in which Act 570 of 2011 was discussed.
Gov. Mike Beebe said he is willing to consider any suggested changes, but added the new reforms need more time. At first blush, the reforms appear to be working but officials need more data, the governor said.
The sentencing reforms were enacted in response to a 2010 study by the Pew Center’s Public Safety Performance, which found that the state’s prison population has doubled in the past 20 years to more than 16,000 and that housing ever more inmates could cost the state $1.1 billion over the next decade.
The reforms and guidelines could save the state about $875 million over the next decade, the PEW study said.
"I know this, (lawmakers) are not being requested to raise taxes and give a bunch more money to the prisons as a result of (the reforms)," Beebe said last week. "I know our backlog in the county jail has gone down … so they’re not going to be requesting a lot more tax dollars to go to jail reimbursement for counties."
Rapert said some of the sentencing reform changes have increased the number of people on probation, including some who should still be behind bars, and that has many in law enforcement worried.
"I believe, based on what I am hearing, that there needs to be a real strong look taken at (whether) we have enough probation officers in the field and if they are truly able to keep up with their case loads," he said.
During budget hearings in November, David Eberhard, director of the Department of Community Correction, credited Act 570 for a steady drop in the prison population. He also noted that about 400 state inmates are currently backed up in county jails waiting for bed space to open in the state system, compared to a backlog of nearly 2,000 in the past.
Eberhard said since the sentencing and probation guidelines and reforms were enacted, the number of probation revocations has dropped by 200.
Act 570 provides for lesser sentences for some nonviolent offenders and mostly drug-related crimes. The law also makes some nonviolent offenders eligible for parole earlier, with electronic monitoring as a condition of early release in some cases.
Act 570 also provides for less severe punishment for some parolees who fail to report to a parole officer or fail a drug test. Those offenders could serve up to seven consecutive days in jail rather than being sent back to prison to serve their full sentence.
The Department of Community Correction has requested funding for 32 additional probation officers to help handle the increase in people on probation and parole.
"The way we have restructured our case load now, we’re concentrating more on high and moderate risk," Dan Roberts, a deputy director of parole and probation for the DCC, told lawmakers recently. "We’re getting a lot of folks being put on probation and a lot of folks being released by the parole board. They are increasing."
Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, said some law enforcement officers had complained to him that some criminals were no longer being held accountable for their crimes.
"They continually do these nonviolent crimes … but there’s no real accountability, other than slapping their hands and putting them back out on the street," Hammer said, noting a provision of Act 570 that doubled the value of items needed for a theft to be a felony from $500 to $1,000.
"I mean, is there a certain number that they can commit, say three misdemeanors, after being released the initial time before it is bumped up to a felony?" Hammer asked. "Can they just perpetually keep committing nonviolent offenses and just keep looking through the system?"
Roberts said that was a possibility.
"Yes, they could be … obviously that would a prosecutor or judge’s responsibility as to how many times they are placed on probation," Roberts said.
"That’s a growing problem," Hammer said. "I hope that as we go into the session we look at that and maybe lower that threshold because there is no fear of breaking the law, (that’s) the impression I am getting from people."
Garland County Sheriff Larry Sanders, who is president of the Arkansas Sheriffs Association, said sheriffs across the state have concerns about Act 570 and likely will discuss the sentencing reform law in depth at the association’s winter meeting in February.
He noted, for example, that previously anyone who stole a gun was charged with a felony. Under the new guidelines the gun’s value is taken into consideration and if it is less than $1,000 it is a misdemeanor charge.
"We do think there are some things that need to be looked at and possibly modified," Sanders said.
Faulkner County Prosecutor Cody Hiland, a member of the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association’s legislative committee, said he expects the group to recommend changes to the law.
"There are some elements of it, and this is just from a personal perspective, that I consider defacto-decriminalization," Hiland said, noting the reduction in sentencing in the meth manufacturing laws.
Previously, the offense was a Class Y felony, punishable by up to 40 years in prison. Under Act 570, manufacturing meth was reduced to a Class C felony, punishable by three to 10 years in prison.
"Methamphetamine is a real problem, and I am a firm believer that crime increases when the cost to the criminal comes too cheap," he said. "I think that in certain instances Act 570 results in the cost to the criminal being too cheap.
"Now again, Act 570 is like anything else, it’s not a zero sum thing, it’s not all bad and it’s not all good," Hiland said. "There are some elements of it … that I’m sure will stand, but there are some that I think the prosecutors will take some initiative and put forward some proposed legislation."