Our View: Smarter Sentencing guidelines just part of needed justice system fix

One aspect of finding solutions to Arkansas’ growing prison population that many of us may never have considered as part of the problem is the current sentencing guidelines by which judges and prosecutors are expected to abide by have little meaning and in many cases simply aren’t being followed. Streamlining the sentencing process and simply requiring judges and prosecutors to go on the record with a justifiable reason when they stray from the guidelines is now something Gov. Asa Hutchinson says will play a key role in addressing a prison population issue that is growing out of control and costing state taxpayers millions upon millions of tax dollars. The governor told members of the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Tax Force recently that it is the impression the current guidelines have little teeth, are weakly being followed and simply don’t carry the weight they should. “To me, you either need to abolish the sentencing guidelines altogether and say we’re not going to have those, or give them some real meaning and teeth,” Hutchinson told the group. Among other of the governor’s priorities, this is a serious issue he wants brought to the forefront in the 2017 legislative session. As the governor brought up as an example, an 80-year sentence one inmate received for writing an $18,000 hot check and a 135-year sentence another inmate received for a drug offense. And, as the governor pointed out, increasing subsequent sentences for repeated convictions is clearly necessary to address criminal acts but, by the same token he said, “we’re escalating at the wrong level.” Now, we are all aware Arkansas is not a large state in comparison with states such as Texas, Florida and California but, it is clear that with 14,804 inmates incarcerated in state prisons currently, as well as nearly 1,700 more inmates in county jails awaiting state transfer there is clearly a problem. If predictions by state officials are correct, by the year 2025 there will be well over 25,000 inmates sitting in state prisons, a number that causes great concern. If that growth is not stymied, the state will need to spend well over $1 billion to accommodate construction for 10,000 more prisoners and to house inmates in county jails while new prisons are built. Now then, with all that stated let us make clear that while decreasing prison population is important our lawmakers must not, under any circumstances, take action in a manner that will jeopardize public safety. We fully expect any action that is taken to address prison overcrowding should not come at the expense of putting the law-abiding citizens at risk. While it is important to make these necessary changes public safety will be an absolutely key factor in any decisions that may be made.

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