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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: The plan on prisons

by John Brummett | November 29, 2022 at 4:28 a.m.

Among the few bills pre-filed already for the legislative session beginning in January are two blank ones that presumably will soon become bulky.

They are identical companion measures, a Senate version and a House version, under the title of "truth in sentencing."

That phrase means, basically, that, at least for violent-crime convictions, a prisoner must serve all the sentence the court gave him. You get eight years from the judge and you'll be in prison for eight years, not out in months re-terrorizing ... well, let's say Little Rock, for example.

The sponsors are Sen. Ben Gilmore and Rep. James Gazaway. They filed the bills in blank form to send the message that they are carrying the relevant--sort of official--measures on this subject, doing so under the implied aegis of legislative leaders and both Gov.-elect Sarah Sanders and Attorney Gen.-elect Tim Griffin.

If all goes according to plan, an "amendment" will later attach pages and pages of verbiage--because this initiative will require detailed revisions to the existing criminal code and an array of changes in parole laws--as well as add maybe dozens, maybe scores, of co-sponsors.

Keeping bad guys in jail longer is a politically popular notion, certainly among conservatives and even among more progressive thinkers as long as we're talking about the violent threats to society and not the nonviolent and simple drug offenders.

The main political argument is whether simply to keep building prisons. But the practicality is that any sentencing-reform measure would only be prospective, affecting persons sentenced after its effective date. Folks in jail already would still serve by the provisions in effect at their sentencing.

The point, which seems entirely valid, is that too much of the ongoing wave of violent crime--especially in Little Rock--is being committed by violent people let out of prison before serving their full sentences, partly because of laws permitting that and partly because of crowding.

This legislation would end that practice for some portion of the most serious violent crimes, introduce or retain some form of earned early release for lesser and nonviolent crimes, and depend entirely--House sponsor Gazaway acknowledged in a Sunday conversation--on the legislative will to spend the necessary millions to build and operate new prisons.

Building a new prison is essentially a companion measure, and it's not yet known just how big a new prison the Legislature will decide it wants or can afford.

Critics will say that this amounts to the insanity of perpetuating a proven destructive cycle. They will say we need to do more about not incarcerating nonviolent offenders, but seeking alternatives, and stopping the pointless money pit.

Gazaway tells me the portion of the state's prison population serving time for nonviolent drug offenses is minuscule, and that, otherwise, the definition of "violent" and "nonviolent" crime is high among the debated particulars.

Burglary is considered violent, but are all burglaries really violent?

Armed and aggravated break-ins--yes, no question. No parole seems a fine idea.

A family member sneaking in to a relative's home and taking property, perhaps owing to disputed right of ownership--is that violent?

And asking for a friend: What about a guy on a home remodel crew, which did a fine job, who shows up at the bank trying to cash one of your personal checks, presumably lifted from a desk drawer in an adjoining room?

The guy wasn't violent. And he laid some pretty tile. But he wronged you rather severely. Even if you define terms to make his indignity nonviolent, which it was, should he perhaps serve a little time and be required at least to earn credits for pretty rapid parole, rather than simply get it?

That's just one small question among many that helps explain why the pre-filed bills are currently blank.

The story is, of course, crime. We must do something about it short-term before we can catch our breath to do something wiser long-term. The destructive cycle--the insanity of doing the same thing over and over--is doing something short-term, meaning build more prisons, and then catching our breath while we lose any sense of urgency to do something wiser long-term.

It's like freeway lanes. You build more because the existing ones are jammed. Then the new ones are jammed, too.

You keep doing that long enough and we won't be anything but concrete slabs and cages.

But, on the premise that you must start somewhere, and accepting that Little Rock can't grow if something doesn't give on the violence front, we should expect this new administration and overwhelmingly conservative Legislature to eliminate parole for the most violent prisoners and appropriate millions to build several hundred new prison cells.

And that won't be horrible as far as it goes.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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