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The recent decision by the state Board of Corrections to enter into a two-decade-long contract with a private prison operator should raise serious alarm bells about the state of our criminal justice system.

Arkansas holds the shameful distinction of having the fastest-growing prison population in the country--draining money from other priorities, exacerbating racial disparities and failing to make our communities safer.

Arkansas spent $433 million on corrections in 2017, increasing by 445 percent since 1985. In fact, it costs the state of Arkansas more to keep a human being in a cage than it does to educate a child in a school.

It would be one thing if these precious resources were being used in a way that strengthened our communities or improved public safety. But this broken and wasteful system has failed to accomplish either of these goals.

Mass incarceration inflicts profound and permanent trauma not only on incarcerated people, but also on their families and communities--perpetuating the cycle of violence and poverty.

Arkansas cannot afford to continue on this harmful trajectory.

That's why last week the ACLU of Arkansas released a blueprint for fixing this broken system once and for all. The goal? To cut our prison population by 50 percent while reducing the system's pervasive racial disparities. These are ambitious goals, but necessary ones in order to stop the runaway train of mass incarceration and start investing in people rather than prisons.

Ending our mass incarceration crisis starts by being clear-eyed about the problem.

The result of a multiyear partnership between the ACLU and the Urban Institute, the Smart Justice Blueprint lays out in stark detail the devastating consequences of this dysfunctional system. Over the last 10 years, the average amount of time served by people in prison increased by nearly 80 percent. Of the people released from prison in 2014, the majority (57 percent) returned to custody within three years.

A primary driver of prison admissions in Arkansas is the large number of people revoked from community supervision. In 2018, 19 percent of admissions to Arkansas prisons were due to technical violations of parole or probation--things like failing to pay a fine or report to a supervision officer. Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that in 2015, nearly 5,000 people were being held pretrial in an Arkansas county jail and had not been convicted of a crime.

This is not what justice is supposed to look like.

The good news is these problems are solvable by building on the progress that's been made here in Arkansas and adopting reforms that other states have already implemented.

For instance, we need to reduce prison admissions by expanding alternatives to incarceration, and prohibiting incarceration for technical violations. Mental health and addiction treatment must be dramatically expanded so that people get the help they need in their communities rather than languish behind bars.

Because someone's freedom should never be determined by how much money they make, the blueprint also provides a roadmap to ending the criminalization of poverty by decriminalizing marijuana possession, eliminating cash bail in favor of a system where people are not locked up simply for being poor, and immediately funding the public defense system at an adequate level.

To reduce the amount of time people spend in prison and cut recidivism, Arkansas' extreme sentencing laws need to be reformed and robust re-entry services expanded.

Finally, we must reduce racial disparities with systemic reforms to combat racial bias in the criminal justice system, and provide implicit-bias training to justice stakeholders--from prosecutors and judges to the police.

Above all, we do not need to throw good money after bad by building more prisons that will perpetuate a broken system that we know has failed.

These recommendations are backed by proven, evidence-based reforms, and animated by a fundamental belief that taxpayer money should be spent on things that heal rather than harm.

Together, we can transform our criminal justice system from a runaway mass incarceration machine into an engine of positive change.

The blueprint is online at tinyurl.com/arkblueprint.

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Holly Dickson is the legal director and interim executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas.

Editorial on 10/07/2019

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