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Why is the state's prison population growing despite a drop in crime?

Last month, the Governor's Criminal Justice Task Force met with officials from the Council of State Government Justice Center in Little Rock for the second of several meetings to discuss the condition of the state's criminal justice system.

Specifically, this meeting focused on the Council's latest findings regarding felony sentencing, with the results showing that not only does Arkansas have the fastest growing prison population in the U.S., but that the rate of felony sentencing continues to increase despite the state's overall crime rate decreasing.

As shocking as these findings are, consider some of the other discoveries made by the Council when examining data from 2012-2014.

In general, the state sentencing guidelines set forth three penalty zones with a defendant's classification within this scheme ultimately depending upon the severity of the underlying offense and their criminal history.

For those who fall into zone one, prison is the recommended sentence. However, those who fall into zone two see their sentences left to the discretion of the judge, while alternatives to incarceration (probation, community service, etc.) is the recommended sentence for those who fall into zone three.

According to the Council, nearly 20 percent of the people given prison sentences as recently as 2014 came from zone three.

In addition, the Council determined the following:

  • 82 percent of the prison sentences handed down in 2014 were for property, drug or other comparable criminal offenses, with the majority of these defendants having a limited criminal background.
  • If the state's prison population continues to grow at its current rate, there could be roughly 25,000 inmates in a system otherwise designed to accommodate 15,000 in as little as ten years and at a cost to taxpayers of roughly $1.3 billion.     

We can only hope that these findings serve as sufficient notice to the Governor's Criminal Justice Task Force that the state's criminal justice system needs to be fixed.

Given the foregoing discussion, it's incredibly important to consider speaking with an experienced legal professional if you've been charged with any sort of felony offense as the stakes are incredibly high.

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