State Task Force Seeks Criminal Justice Reform

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ROGERS, Ark. (KFSM) - Several local criminal justice leaders who are part of a task force that's looking for ways to deal with growing inmate population in Arkansas prisons met on Tuesday (May 24).

In 2015, Governor Asa Hutchinson formed the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force to find ways to improve the state's criminal justice system.

On Tuesday (May 24), several prosecutors from around the state, including Benton County Prosecutor Nathan Smith, urged that any changes should keep the safety of the public in mind.

"We want to ensure that that is our starting point, that the purpose of any legislation is how to keep society safe," said Smith. "As well as how to keep bad guys in prison where they belong."

Currently, more than 900 inmates around the state sit in county jails, waiting for space to open up in prison, according to a report complied by Ken Casady, prosecuting attorney of Saline County.

"The problem we have right now is a lack of capacity and being able to really have a deterrent effect for repeat and violent offenders," said Smith. "That's something we want the commission to consider."

There was some sparring between State Senator Linda Pondexter Chesterfield of Pulaski County and a few of the attorneys about how to reduce jail and prison populations.

"We've also got to provide opportunities for people to be better and if we can do that through drug courts," said Pondexter Chesterfield. "If we can do that through counseling, if we can do that through education, then we are [all] better."

Task force member, Circuit Court Judge Cristi Beaumont said she oversees drug court cases in Washington County.

She would like to make sure the state is helping people with mental health issues and substance abuse instead of putting them in prison.

"Treating substance abuse, treating mental health issues involving more specialty courts to try to divert them from prison is a very successful way to try to get at the heart of the problem," said Beaumont.

Arkansas lawmakers are considering recommendations for a potential criminal justice reform bill during the 2017 legislative session, in which, the task force will make some of those recommendations.