Do we have to be soft on crime to reduce prison overcrowding?
Sheriff John Montgomery is soft on crime. This newsletter goes out to several thousand subscribers. For those that don't know me personally, please read on. For those that do know me personally you can stop laughing. You know better.
Our belief: The Baxter County Sheriff's Office believes in firm, but fair treatment for all. We believe people should be held accountable for their actions. As you have heard me say over and over, our jail is not the Holiday Inn. It's a jail. It's not supposed to be pleasant. If you don't like not having TV, if you don't like not being able to smoke, if you don't like eating beans and cornbread 365 days a year, don't come back.
County's Problem: The State of Arkansas has a problem and it is affecting every county within. The prisons are all full and currently there is a backlog of over 1800 inmates in County Jails awaiting beds to open up in the Prisons. This is not only creating a strain on the State's Budget, but the County's Budget as well. The increase in jail population here in Baxter County hit a peak last week when we came within two inmates of reaching our maximum. This not only affects our operating budget, but creates a safety issue as the jail staff tries to deal with a larger number of inmates. Like it or not, there are only so many beds in prison. We cannot send someone to prison until someone goes out the other door. So the tough question for Directors of the Prison and the Parole Board is to determine who they release to allow new inmates the space. I don't envy this difficult task.
State's Problem: Over the past twenty years, the Arkansas Prison Population has more than doubled. The cost of corrections grew from $45 million twenty years ago to approximately $349 million this year. That amounts to about 8% of the State's General Fund Budget. As much as we would all like to keep locking up every person who breaks the law, the simple fact is we cannot afford nor can we build the prisons fast enough. We can no longer continue business as usual.
I believe the purpose for punishment is to deal consequences to a person's bad behavior and to hopefully deter future bad behavior. If the behavior continues, the punishment should become more severe. If a person refuses to change and is wreaking havoc and harming society, then they are the ones who need to be locked up for a long period of time. To steal a phrase, we need to stop putting people in prison that we are mad at, rather those that need to be locked up to protect society. Key: The key to this whole issue is we must reduce recidivism (repeat offenders). We have to stop people from coming back to prison once they are released. The prisons have numerous programs that are in place to help reduce the recidivism rate. Drug Treatment programs, Educational programs designed to help an inmate receive their GED, and even the 309 Inmate Work Program are all in place to help reduce the percentage of inmates who return.
Study: The Governor and Legislature have a daunting task in front of them. Governor Mike Beebe has assembled a group to study the crisis faced by Arkansas' prisons. Their purpose is to determine what is causing the dramatic increase in inmate population compared to the rest of the nation, and to recommend what can be done to reduce recidivism and effectively manage this growing crisis. They are analyzing which programs are successful and which programs should be expanded. I applaud the Governor because as I understand the directive, he placed no limitations on their scope; the group was simply asked to come back with recommendations and possible solutions.
Keep in mind, this study only developed recommendations. In the next few days the Governor and his staff will be working closely with officials of prisons as well as other law enforcement personnel to come up with policies and legislation. This will be a tough balancing act as they weigh the costs of incarceration to public safety.
Opinion: In reading this group's preliminary report, called The Pew Report, there are some recommendations that have merit, such as keeping those Department of Corrections programs that have demonstrated high success rates. However, there are other recommendations that go against my personal experience and judgment. One of the committee's recommendations is to give more probation sentences instead of sending offenders to prison. I, like many people, get frustrated by the sheer number of offenders who receive a mere probation sentence instead of a prison sentence.
On the surface, issuing a probation sentence appears to address the issue of prison overcrowding. An offender is put on probation and therefore, doesn't take up a prison bed. Unfortunately, the current probation system may unintentionally increase recidivism. Let me explain -- many people on probation know they can violate their probation multiple times and only receive a slight slap on the hand. Why is this? First, there are simply not enough probation officers to handle the caseloads which means the probationer is not watched closely enough to catch any violation. Secondly and most importantly, there is no real consequence for the probationer's actions if they do violate their conditions. Because of the crowding in the prisons and the cash-strapped jails, the Probation Officers have their hands tied and the probationer receives little or no punishment. The result is predictable, just like dealing with a child. If you tell a child there will be punishment for bad behavior, there must be swift and instant punishment or the child will continue to press the issue. The probationers know it and their actions show it. They will continue to violate their parole and will be more likely to re-offend later; their cycle of crimes will continue until the prison becomes their revolving door. This does nothing to reduce prison overcrowding.
Recall that I said one of the keys to solving the long-term prison crisis is to reduce recidivism. In my experience, a swift and immediate punishment for a violation of probation is critical to stopping a life of increasingly more serious crimes and eventually, multiple prison sentences. So how do we equip an overwhelmed probation system to become a robust first line of defense? We have to increase the number of Probation Officers to ensure there is adequate hands-on monitoring. We have to institute swift and immediate ramifications to violations in the form of an instant trip to jail. Any subsequent violation should result in longer punishments and again, if the behavior doesn't improve, a sentence to prison. Obviously the Counties will require some financial assistant to pay for the increase in Probation Officers, but I believe the financial investment on the front-end will have a profound impact on the long-term reversing the increasing prison population trend.
Tougher stance: We need to stop being kinder and gentler to those that break the law, especially early on. If someone messes up and breaks the law the first time, let the punishment fit the crime, get them counseling and education and give them a chance to learn from their mistake. On the second or subsequent time, there has to be swift retribution. No, you don't get to go home; no, you don't get to have the punishment fit your schedule or convenience. A violator needs to go straight to jail. One of the most frustrating issues for me as a Sheriff is a DOC Bond. That means that a person is sentenced to prison but is allowed to remain free until a bed opens up in prison. In my opinion if you have committed a crime serious enough to warrant prison, you need to be confined to jail until a bed opens up in prison. The high rate of criminals who re-offend while on a DOC Bond is not only sobering, it reinforces my belief that a lax system breeds repeat offenders which in turn leads to prison overcrowding.
Radical Solution: Personally I think one of the best ways to reduce recidivism is to make it mandatory that everyone goes to prison for a couple of weeks on their FIRST offense (for those offenses that currently receive probation or suspended sentences). I believe a large number of the offenders will be ‘scared straight' and law enforcement won't be dealing with them again. By the time anyone is sentenced to prison for non-violent offenses, they have already committed multiple crimes. Send them down the first time and let them see what they are facing if they don't change.
Would the Judges, Prosecutors and Prison Officials agree to mandatory two week prison time? Probably not. A number dont follow the current sentencing guidelines now, that were set forth by legislation. I would argue it should be considered. It just might reverse the increasing prison population trend.
Sheriff John Montgomery