Guest writers


We must do better on prison reform

It's political season, so we can expect to hear politicians "talking tough" as they offer soundbite solutions to complex issues. And there is no more complex issue than criminal justice.

The tough-on-crime rhetoric used by Bill Clinton and Joe Biden to push their disastrous 1994 "crime bill" feels stale three decades later when mimicked by some politicians. And it should. For a century, Arkansas' solution to crime has been to build more prisons and increase sentences. But the results paint a less-than-flattering picture.

Arkansas has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the country, with 942 citizens per 100,000 behind bars. If Arkansas was its own country, we would have a higher incarceration rate than China, Cuba, and Iran combined.

The trends are even more damning. While the average state imprisonment rate in the U.S. dropped by 8 percent between 2000 and 2017, Arkansas' incarceration rate increased by 35 percent. If the soundbite approach worked and more incarceration meant less crime, this would make sense. Arkansas has the fifth-highest incarceration rate in the country, so it should be at least the fifth-safest state. Unfortunately, that isn't true. According to JFA Associates, which consults for the Arkansas Department of Corrections, Arkansas has the fourth-highest crime rate in the country. Arkansas has exceeded the national violent rate for the 16th straight year, according to recent FBI statistics.

It is not as though Arkansans has more criminals than Illinois, New Jersey, or New York. Yet, as a proportion of our population, more of our own are behind bars than in 45 other states. We can do better if we can move beyond soundbites and look at what actually cuts crime. And the best example is Texas.

Fourteen years ago, then-Gov. Rick Perry was told Texas needed to build four new prisons or reform its justice system. Perry chose reform. Working with Republicans and Democrats, Texas: (1) prioritized prisons for violent offenders; (2) authorized drug treatment, probation, and specialty courts to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders behind bars; and (3) used the cost savings to fund proven anti-recidivism programs, mental health treatment for prisoners, and more police to take on violent crime.

With more than a decade of data, we know the Perry model works. Texas has seen a 17 percent decrease in prison population, resulting in 10 closed prisons. By reducing the size of its prison population, the Lone Star State has been able save more than $2 billion in taxpayer money.

If you predicted that Texas' decrease in prison population would mean an increased crime rate, you would be wrong. Since enacting Perry's reforms, crime rates have dropped by 29 percent, giving Texas its lowest crime rate since 1968.

Govs. Mike Beebe and Asa Hutchinson attempted to enact similar reforms in 2011 and 2017. And they leveled off the prison growth for a while. However, the Legislature watered down solutions that watered down the results. Politicians refused to fund alternative sentencing programs, drug rehabilitation, and mental health, so cuts in recidivism never materialized. And incarceration rates are again on the rise.

Of course, no one is arguing that people should be given a pass for wrongdoing. But not every crime requires a long prison sentence. Yes, we must protect communities from violent offenders. But for those who do not pose a threat, we can hold them accountable in ways that don't end up filling Arkansas' prisons and leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.

The other half of the equation is helping ex-offenders re-enter society. More than 95 percent of those in prison will return home. Once debts to society are paid, the state needs to reduce unnecessary barriers to employment and housing that so often arise for those with a criminal record. Why? Because people coming out of prison are less likely to re-offend when they have meaningful work and a safe place to live.

Arkansas can do better than high incarceration rates and increasing crime. However, that requires voters to move beyond accepting simple soundbite solutions offered by politicians.

Einstein once reportedly remarked that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again but expecting different results. Some politicians are asking us to do just that. Doubling down on the "tough on crime" approach may sound good. But what Arkansas really needs is for its leaders to be "smart on crime" by relying on data, common sense, and (heaven forbid) the approach taken by Texas.

Tim Hutchinson represented Arkansas in the United States Senate and in the U.S. and Arkansas House of Representatives. He is a senior fellow at the American Conservative Union. David Safavian is the general counsel of the American Conservative Union Foundation.

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