LITTLE ROCK — The final verdict is still out, but early indicators suggest state prison reforms intended to ease overcrowding and slow rising costs are having some success, lawmakers heard Tuesday.
Wendy Naro-Ware of Denver-based JFA Institute, which has consulted the state on prison overcrowding, said Tuesday that in 2011 the number of parole revocations dropped nearly 30 percent, and the number of probation revocations declined 15 percent.
“That is extremely high,” she told a joint meeting of the Senate and House judiciary committees, and the Charitable, Penal and Correctional Institutions Subcommittee of Legislative Council. “That is good news and it has fueled the decrease in the number of admissions to prison.”
The state’s overall prison population, which peaked in November 2010 at 16,400, dropped 7.1 percent in 2011 to just under 15,000, matching 2004-2005 prison population levels, she said.
Naro-Ware also said the number of defendants convicted of Class Y felonies, such as murder and aggravated robbery, and required to serve at least 70 percent of their sentence, and those convicted of meth crimes and required to serve at least 50 percent of their sentence, has dropped some this year, and the lengths of sentences for non-violent crimes have decreased slightly, as well.
After Naro-Ware’s presentation, Rep. Jeremy Gilliam, R-Judsonia, asked if the reductions she spoke of happened after the Legislature adopted prison reforms in 2011 “or if they were already trimming down?”
Naro-Ware told lawmakers that Act 570 of 2011 took effect July 27 that year, and many of the individual reforms became law Jan. 1, but month-by-month tracking indicates the reforms are working.
“We do have this data on a month-by-month breakdown … and it’s pretty consistent,” said Naro-Ware. “So, it didn’t happen all of a sudden in September, it was fairly consistent.”
The sentencing reforms were enacted in response to a 2010 study by the Pew Center’s Public Safety Performance, which found that the state’s prison population has doubled in the past 20 years to more than 16,000 and that housing even more inmates could cost the state $1.1 billion over the next decade.
The reforms and guidelines could save the state about $875 million over the next decade, the PEW study said.
Act 570 provides for lesser sentences for some nonviolent offenders and mostly drug-related crimes. The law also makes some nonviolent offenders eligible for parole earlier, with electronic monitoring as a condition of early release in some cases.
Naro-Ware said the electronic monitoring program has yet to be implemented.
Act 570 also provides for less severe punishment for some parolees who fail to report to a parole officer or fail a drug test. Those offenders could serve up to seven consecutive days in jail rather than being sent back to prison to serve their full sentences.
After the meeting, Rep. Karen Hooper, R-Lakeview, said she still wasn’t sure what impact Act 570 actually had so far on the state’s prison problems.
“This is all well and good but has Act 570 had an impact that is measurable, that you can present in there?” she asked, adding that Naro-Ware “was very forthcoming in that it is difficult at this point … but I think we’re several months away from really being able to see.”
Sen. Jim Luker, D-Wynne, chairman of the Senate committee, said that Naro-Ware’s report showed that Act 570 appeared to be on the right track.
“The object here is … to free up space for the most serious offenders,” he said, noting that the data presented showed that defendants convicted of more violent crimes were being sentenced to longer prison sentences, while many defendants convicted of non-violent crimes were receiving lighter sentences.
Rep. Darrin Williams, D-Little Rock, chairman of the House Committee, agreed.
“You members may remember how much time we spent on Act 570 and I think …. shows our policy recommendations seems to be working and working well,” he said.