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Code changes to reduce overcrowding

by Jeanni Brosius | June 26, 2011 at 2:08 a.m.

— The way drug and theft charges are handled will drastically change and sentences may be reduced in an attempt to free up space in Arkansas’ prisons.

State, county and city law enforcement personnel and others who work in the justice system gathered in Independence Hall at the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville on Wednesday to learn about changes in the state’s criminal code.

When Public Safety Improvement Act 570 was passed by the General Assembly on March 22, the act dramatically changed the criminal code and how criminals are sentenced. The act, which was presented in order to relieve prison overcrowding, will go into effect Wednesday, July 27.

“It is the most drastic change in the criminal code since it was first adopted in 1975, and the drug laws in the state of Arkansas no longer exist as we know them,” 16th Judicial Prosecuting Attorney Don McSpadden told the group of law-enforcement officers.

The 164-page act and its changes were explained by Arkansas Prosecutor Coordinator Bob McMahan as a work in progress.

“The projected savings, if it works, is about $875 million,” McMahan said. “The savings will trickle down to the county level.”

Gov. Mike Beebe said he believes the Public Safety Improvement Act will make Arkansas more safe in a couple of important ways: by reserving prison beds for violent prisoners and by strengthening the state’s system of probation and parole.

“When fully implemented, the act will slow the growth of Arkansas’ prison population, reserving prison beds for violent and career offenders,” Beebe said. “In the past 20 years, Arkansas’ prison population has doubled, and the annual prison budget has increased from $45 million to more than $350 million. If left unchecked, the prison population is expected to grow another 43 percent by 2020 at a cost to Arkansas taxpayers of $1.1 billion in new prison construction and operation expenses. Arkansas’ budget cannot support these increased costs, so we need a different approach to ensure that we can continue to incarcerate violent and career criminals.

“Additionally, the act strengthens our system of probation and parole, holding offenders accountable through the implementation of evidence-based practices that have been proven to reduce recidivism, such as risk assessment and swift and certain sanctions for violators.”

Because drug and theft charges are considered nonviolent crimes, McMahan said, the sentencing has become lighter or shorter for these crimes to save prison space for more violent criminals. The changes that go into effect will not be retroactive.

“What we’re going to have for a while is two sets of everything. … Any case that is worked will fall under the old laws until [July 27],” McMahan said about the transition period. “The date of the offense, not when the person is charged, is what will dictate which laws to use.”

McMahan said methamphetamine and cocaine offenders will still be treated harshly, but laws regarding marijuana have changed.

Under the previous statute, possessing 1 ounce of marijuana could get someone a class A misdemeanor charge with a sentence of up to a year in prison, and delivering or manufacturing 1 ounce to 10 pounds of marijuana was considered a class C felony with a sentence of three to 10 years in prison.

Under the new statute, possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana is considered a misdemeanor; and delivery or manufacture of up to 14 grams of marijuana is now considered a class A misdemeanor.

“I think this is something we’re going to have to revisit and maybe have help from law enforcement,” McMahan said about the lighter sentencing laws for marijuana possession. “Meth and cocaine are still our super drugs, and they will be dealt with more seriously.”

A new offense also has been created and added to the drug statutes: trafficking a controlled substance, which in all cases is considered a class Y felony with a sentence of 10 to 40 years or life in prison.

Revisions on theft crimes are also part of the new act. Previously, less than a $500 theft was considered a class A misdemeanor, but that amount has doubled to less than $1,000.

Early-release provisions were also altered.

Probationers and parolees will now be able to gain “dayfor-day good-time credit.”

“Their sentence could be cut in half,” McMahan said.

There is also a 120-day parole eligibility during which a prisoner could be released from incarceration after 120 days, under certain circumstances, and placed on electronic monitoring.

The 120-day parole early release provision doesn’t apply if the sentence was a result of a bench or jury trial or if a violent or sex crime was committed, or if crimes resulted in a death or the inmate has previously failed a drug-court program.

There will be a learning curve while law-enforcement personnel evolve into using the new laws, McMahan said.

  • jbrosius@ arkansasonline.comThe original law states that three of the following factors have to be proven to determine purpose to deliver, but the new laws state that only one has to be proven.

◊The person possesses the means to weigh and separate the controlled substance;

◊The person possesses records indicating a drug-related transaction;

◊The controlled substance is separated and packaged in a manner to facilitate delivery;

◊The person possesses a firearm that is in the immediate physical control of the person at the same time he possesses a controlled substance;

◊The person possesses at least two other controlled substances in any amount; or◊Other relevant and admissible evidence contributes to the proof that a person’s purpose was to deliver a controlled substance.

New offense created Trafficking a controlled substance is a new offense created in the act. Certain weight thresholds trigger a class Y felony, which could result in a sentence of 10 to 40 years or life in prison.

Early-release provisions under certain circumstances◊Probationers and parolees will now be able to gain day-for-day good-behavior credit, so a sentence could potentially be cut in half.

◊Inmates can be released from incarceration after 120 days and placed on electronic monitoring for class C and D felonies.

Three Rivers, Pages 113 on 06/26/2011

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