LITTLE ROCK - Preliminary studies show that legislation enacted last year has freed up prison space for dangerous offenders by shifting more non-violent offenders into probation.
The legislature passed Act 570 of 2011 to control skyrocketing growth in the Arkansas inmate population, which had doubled in 20 years. The cost of operating state prison units grew proportionately and is now more than $300 million a year.
The inmate population peaked in 2010, when more than 16,000 men and women were being housed in state prison units. It has dropped down to about 15,000.
Also, there are about 56,000 people on probation or parole in Arkansas, under the supervision of the Department of Community Correction.
A study showed that Arkansas was 23 percent below the national average in using probation, while at the same time non-violent offenders were serving long sentences. This strained the prisons' capacity for dangerous and career criminals.
The number of offenders sentenced to probation has gone up since 2010, when 8,300 people received probation in Arkansas. That number increased to 9,750 last year.
The Senate Judiciary Committee and the Charitable, Penal and Correctional subcommittee of the Legislative Council held a joint
meeting at the Capitol and heard a report that people convicted of violent crimes are getting longer sentences, thanks to Act 570.
State prisons now are using less space to house offenders who are guilty of a technical violation of their parole. Typical violations are leaving the county without notifying a parole officer, going to a bar, failing to report or failing a drug test.
Under Act 570, technical violators are immediately picked up and serve a day or two in a local jail instead of having their parole or probation revoked and being processed back into prison.
Act 570 directs the Department of Community Correction to use evidence based practices, in other words, to base its policies on solid data and not on conventional wisdom. The department director told legislators that evidence based practices include electronic monitoring, such as ankle bracelets, halfway housing to transition inmates back into the community, drug courts and treatment for drug abuse and mental health issues.
Act 570 authorized a $10 increase in fees charged for supervision, from $25 to $35. The additional fee has brought in $2.8 million which the department is using to implement evidence based practices, such as electronic monitoring.
Prison officials, law enforcement authorities and legislators will continue to closely monitor changes in criminal justice resulting from Act 570. The data presented last week was preliminary and more reliable information will be available in coming years, after the new law has taken full effect.
Advanced Placement Tests
A record number of Arkansas high school students took advanced placement exams earlier this year, when 22, 857 students took the college level tests. That is 7.4 percent more than took the tests last year. Almost a third of their scores were high enough that the student earned college credit.
The director of the state Education Department said that more Arkansas high school students are taking a rigorous college preparatory curriculum, therefore they are better prepared for college level academics.