January 20, 2023
by Sen. Steve Crowell
LITTLE ROCK – There are many stages in the process of convicting criminals and sentencing them to prison. Senate Bill 2, the “Truth in Sentencing and Parole Reform Act of 2023,” will change many of them.
Currently SB 2 is a shell bill, which means it consists only of the title. That’s because the co-sponsors are still gathering ideas from people in the many areas of law enforcement that will be affected.
Stakeholders include county sheriffs and police departments, prosecutors, judges, wardens, prison security officers, parole and probation officers, transition programs, victims’ rights advocates, defense attorneys, drug courts, specialty courts, drug treatment programs and alcohol abuse programs.
The reforms will cost money, so SB 2 will have a ripple effect on the other spending categories in state government.
Last year, many elected officials listed stronger law enforcement as one of their campaign issues.
In an interview, the Senate sponsor said that a major focus of the bill would be to protect people from repeat violent offenders who are released from prison on parole, sometimes after serving as little as a sixth of their sentence.
Under SB 2, inmates would have to earn their parole eligibility through good behavior; it would not be guaranteed merely by serving a portion of their sentence. The bill would create incentives for inmates to complete rehabilitation programs.
One challenge the sponsors must address is that about 1,700 inmates are being held in county jails in an average month while they wait for available space to open in a state prison unit.
County jails don’t have the funds or resources for the programs that state prisons can offer, such as treatment for drug abuse and job training. Thus, while inmates are serving time in in a county jail they are not preparing for a productive life after their release.
The measure will lengthen sentences and tighten parole provisions, because violent offenders are getting out too soon, the sponsor said. Some inmates don’t participate in job training and drug rehab programs. A strong incentive to participate would be to make it a requirement in order to become eligible for parole.
The legislature will consider proposals to add prison space. The question is how many more beds to build, and how many of the new beds will be for violent and dangerous offenders.
At the end of 2022, the Department of Correction had more than 17,000 inmates in its jurisdiction. That is an increase of about 3,000 more inmates since 10 years ago, and an increase of about 5,000 inmates since 20 years ago.
In fiscal year 2010, the legislature appropriated $338 million from the state’s general revenue fund to the Correction Department for operating state prisons. Last fiscal year the appropriation was $494 million.
The Senate co-sponsor of SB 2 said that garnering a consensus in support of the bill would depend on its total cost. It probably will be a couple of weeks before the details are finalized. When that happens, the bill will be amended. It will no longer be a shell bill with just a title, but will be “a fairly large piece of legislation.”