By JAMIE DAVIS
The Act 570 Implementation Task Force reacted with “shock” Feb. 10 when 13th Judicial District Prosecutor Robin Carroll presented them with figures indicating a $4.2 million savings to the state in 2011 as a result of the Smarter Sentencing pilot program in Union and Columbia Counties, he said.
The two counties - which are the 16th and 29th largest - are the test cases for the program, though Ouachita County will soon be added. According to Carroll, the state is “very interested” in the success the two counties have had with Smarter Sentencing, which is designed to reduce the number of inmates in the Arkansas Dept. of Correction while at the same time, reducing rates of criminal recidivism, or the number of people who return to crime.
The program is being monitored closely since Arkansas’ passage of Act 570, which came about after a Pew Center study revealed that the state’s prison population has doubled over the last two decades, and if left unchecked, would increase by another 43 percent in the next 10 years. The Pew Center estimated the cost of that growth at an additional $1.1 billion to the taxpayer.
With Ark. Gov. Mike Beebe declaring that there would be no more prisons built in the State of Arkansas, state officials began collaborating with representatives of the ADC, the courts and criminal justice system - “everyone with an interest in Act 570,” said Carroll - to create a solution to the problem of prison population growth and spending.
According to Carroll, the first-year results of the Smarter Sentencing program strongly indicate that it is a viable response to that issue.
Those results include the following figures:
• A 3.2 recidivism rate among 218 participants, including 3.1 percent for 162 participants in Union County and 3.5 percent for 56 in Columbia County. The recidivism rate for the state is 46.4 percent.
• Union County had 210 ADC or CCC placements in 2010, and Columbia County had 69 that year. In 2011, those figures dropped to 126 and 25, respectively, for a 40 percent reduction in Union County, and a 64 percent reduction in Columbia County. Between both counties, there was a reduction in ADC/CCC placements of 128 people, a 46 percent decrease from 2011, for a savings of $2,762,086 to the state.
• Union County placed 266 people on probation in 2010, compared to 145 in 2011. In Columbia County, 104 people were placed on probation in 2010, compared to 25 in 2011. Those figures represent a total reduction of 200 fewer people, or 56 percent, on probation. Assuming a 58 percent recidivism rate for those 200 people and an average prison stay of 210 days, the savings to the state was $1,440,163.
• Assuming all 218 Smarter Sentencing participants were placed on probation in 2011, and assuming a 58 percent recidivism rate, the savings to the state was $1,564,315.
• Considering the 40 percent reduction in ADC/CCC placements, and the 54 percent reduction in the number of probationers, the total savings to the state in 2011 because of Smarter Sentencing was $4,202,249.
• Upon entrance to the program, 98 percent tested positive for illegal substances. Within two months of graduation from the program, there have been zero positive drug tests, with a compliance rate of 93.4 percent for all drug and alcohol tests.
• There has been a 23 percent increase in adult education (GED), work force certificates and career readiness certificates among program participants. Employment among participants increased from 41 percent to 69 percent.
• Upon graduation from the program, most participants will have their pleas withdrawn or their records expunged.
The total cost of the Smarter Sentencing program in Union County in fiscal year 2010, according to Carroll, was $118,000; in fiscal year 2011, that number fell to $59,000.
“It’s too simplistic to say that we spent $250,000 on Smarter Sentencing to save the state $4.2 million,” Carroll said. “We don’t need grant money to do any of this. The probation officers can do it now and are beginning to do it.”
Carroll said the successes of the program so far make it a real possibility that it could be implemented in other counties as well.
“We are the pilot project, so obviously (the state) is interested in what our results are,” he said. “If what we do works, they will implement it in other jurisdictions around the state.”
“To be able to tell people that this will work wherever you do it is to look at these results. They are the same results from two different counties with different courts and different judges. That kind of tells you that we’re doing works, and it will work everywhere with consistent results,” he added. “Much effort is being given to keeping statistics because if it doesn’t work, we need to change it or do something else.”
Carroll explained that Smarter Sentencing is not the first program of its kind, though there are no others exactly like it. There is, however, the HOPE Court in Hawaii, which was created by Judge Steven Ohm to deal with a rising meth amphetamine problem in that state, he said.
The HOPE Court is based “on the premise that you need to figure out what is in a person’s background that makes them commit a crime and to deal with their addiction.”
“The judge was seeing the same people; it was a never-ending cycle,” Carroll explained. “And in that court, if you don’t show up for a probation appointment or you fail a drug test, you know exactly what is going to happen to you.”
Carroll said the federal government has taken an interest in HOPE Court program and has implemented it in four test counties in four separate states in order to get an accurate comparison of results. The test counties - located in Arkansas (Saline County), Texas, Massachusetts and Oregon - are designed exactly the same as the HOPE Court, he said.
“They want to measure the outcomes and be able to say that what they’re doing in Hawaii will work in Texas or Arkansas,” he said.
Carroll acknowledged that when Act 570 was initially presented, there was some concern from both citizens and officials about criminals being returned to the street without sufficient punishment for their crimes, but noted that the program excludes those charged with serious violent felonies, sex crimes, and violence against children, the elderly and the handicapped.
“The people going to Smarter Sentencing are non-violent offenders,” Carroll stressed. “We are not putting violent people back on the streets. Almost all these individuals would have been placed on probation and put back on the street anyway. This is about doing a better job of managing those people and turning their lives around.”
Carroll said both counties are “doing a fantastic job” of implementing the program and hopes the state will follow suit.
“There’s no doubt the state needs to commit resources to do this,” he said, citing the need for drug tests and treatment and adult education funding, among other issues. “It obviously saves the state money, but there has to be a commitment or it won’t work. Here, we are implementing evidence-based practices.”
He added, “Public safety is the number one priority, not what programs we make available to defendants. But if what we do makes them less likely to re-offend, we have improved public safety.”