The Sebastian County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee was given information regarding local alternative sentencing programs on Tuesday.
The committee heard from Fort Smith District Court Judge Jim O'Hern during its meeting Tuesday. O'Hern said the Sebastian County District Court Fort Smith Division initiated two alternative sentencing programs. The first of these was Alternativthe Restore Hope Alternative Sentencing Program, which started in mid-September.
Some 430 people have entered the Restore Hope Alternative Sentencing Program as of Friday, O'Hern said. Of this number, 152 people are in the program, 224 people have been removed from it and 54 have completed it. However, O'Hern said he believes those numbers are slightly off.
"We've been tweaking this program as we go along, and one of the things that we added to the program were all those contempt - failure to pays, and we've had a truckload of those every week," O'Hern said. "And what we discovered within a relatively short period of time after adding those to the program was that a lot of people were using it just to put off paying their fines because they weren't really interested in participating in the alternative sentencing program."
Now, O'Hern said, the Sebastian County District Court is individually screening people with failure to pay charges. The screening is conducted by a judge as opposed to someone from the Harbor House or the Fort Smith Adult Education Center.
"And we make a determination based on their answers to our questions whether or not we feel that they would be successful in the program," O'Hern said. "So that's why the numbers jumped up a little bit over 50% on people failing in the program. We were running right at about 48% with a 52% success rate, but then as soon as we started the contempt - failure to pays, it jumped up, so I'm expecting those numbers to go down on the dropout rate."
In O'Hern's estimation, the alternative sentencing program has been "a tremendous success" thanks to the Harbor House and the Fort Smith Adult Education Center. He described it as a voluntary program into which someone charged with certain offenses can enter. If people complete the program, they would not have to partake in their ordered community service if they have any. In addition, depending on how far people go in the program, they can have part or all of their fines and costs forgiven.
O'Hern said he talked with several people who completed the program. He believes it is working.
"I'm going to be real curious after a year to see what our recidivism rate is, but as of right now, I think it's very low because I'm not seeing these people back in court," O'Hern said. "I think it's highly successful."
O'Hern also provided a list of the types of cases that are included in the alternative sentencing program. In the district court's city division, this includes:
• Shoplifting (misdemeanor theft)
• All misdemeanor theft of property charges
• Misdemeanor theft by receiving
• Misdemeanor unlawful transfer of property to a pawn shop
• Criminal trespass of an occupiable structure
• Obstructing governmental operations
• Public intoxication
• Selective contempt - failure to pay cases
In the district court's state division, the cases include, in addition to those previously mentioned:
• Possession of marijuana cases
• Misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia cases
• Misdemeanor possession of instrument of crime cases
O'Hern also talked about the district court's voluntary driving while intoxicated court program, which was started April 1. He said this is just for DWI - second offense and DWI - third offense offenders, where there is going to be significant jail time involved if a person commits these offenses. The jail time is eliminated if the person completes the DWI 2 program, which is for six months, or the DWI 3 program, which is for eight months. However, the judges reserve the right to give jail time if the case involves a situation where an individual has caused property damage to a third party as a result of the DWI, if there has been an injury to a third party as a result of the DWI or if there has been a minor under the age of 16 in the vehicle at the time an individual was charged with the DWI.
The district court currently has several enrollees in the DWI program, O'Hern said. The Harbor House is doing all the administration for this program outside the courtroom.
"We're really too early into the program to see what the success rate is going to be, but one of the things that I like about it is we got a commitment from Sheriff (Hobe) Runion and his staff that if they wash out of the program, they're going to serve their jail time," O'Hern said.
O'Hern said a plea of guilty must be entered before offenders can get into the Restore Hope Alternative Sentencing Program or the DWI program. This ensures they can be sanctioned at once if they "wash out" of the programs.
The Sebastian County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee will next meet May 21.