By John Moritz
LONOKE — Seated in the gallery of her expansive courtroom on the third floor of the Lonoke County Courthouse, behind the bar and facing her usual chair, Circuit Judge Barbara Elmore thought about the offenders likely to appear at the defense table now at her left.
In probation revocation hearings — one of the topics of the discussion Monday — the defendant is likely to be drug-addicted, said Elmore, of the 23rd Judicial Circuit. Many defendants might be facing new arrests. Others may have violated the terms of their supervision by skipping check-ins with their probation officers or failing drug tests.
But these violators, facing the prospect of having their probations revoked and being thrown into prison, are likely to show up in her courtroom hoping for another chance, Elmore said.
A new law on the books, set to go into effect today, aims at sending those low-level probation violators, as well as delinquent parolees, to short-term lockups at county jails or to treatment programs rather than to longer-term, crowded prisons. The state Department of Correction has more than 16,000 inmates in custody but only room for 15,300.
In March, lawmakers passed the final 55-page version of the new law, now Act 423 of 2017. To familiarize county and local officials with it, Arkansas Community Correction officials have barnstormed the state, holding meetings in courthouses, and at local parole and probation offices.
The meeting in Elmore’s courtroom Monday included two Lonoke County circuit judges, as well as prosecutors, a public defender and law enforcement officers.
Facing them, while sitting at the table normally reserved for defendants, Dina Tyler — the Community Correction deputy director of communications and public affairs — said the law poses many unknowns: How many offenders would prosecutors seek to label as public threats? Would offenders take their chances at hearings rather than submit to treatment? Would treatment keep them out of trouble?
There’s not even a good estimate on how many offenders will be made eligible for the diversions. Tyler said the number could be in the thousands.
“We honestly don’t know,” Tyler said.
A central component of the law gives probationers and parolees as many as six “strikes” for violating the terms of their supervisions before they are sent to prison.
Offenders who commit more serious violations, however, and face new felony or violent misdemeanor charges would have their probations revoked.
For each strike, an offender could be sent to the county jail for no more than seven days at a time — or 30 days total throughout their supervisions — or into Community Correction’s technical violator program for between 45 and 180 days, depending on the seriousness of their violations and how cooperative they are with the program.
Treatment-based lockups operated by Community Correction in Texarkana and Malvern have stopped filling some beds to ensure that there is enough space for the violators who will sanctioned under the new law, said Director Sheila Sharp. Community Correction oversees parole and probation programs.
As of Friday, there were about 100 beds set aside, Sharp said. Department officials hope that offenders will move quickly through the technical violator program so that bed space can be kept available, but Sharp said more beds may be added depending on how many people are sent to the centers.
Probationers and parolees can still seek hearings over their alleged violations, but they run the risk of being sent back to prison, and Tyler and Sharp said few may seek such hearings because of that.
The law was the result of two years of research by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which examined a sharp rise in the number of inmates at the Arkansas Department of Correction. The increase followed a statewide crackdown on supervised offenders after the 2013 murder of a Fayetteville teenager by a serial absconder in Little Rock.
A report released last year by the Justice Center and a task force of lawmakers and local officials estimated the cost to incarcerate low-level parole and probation violators at $15.6 million a year.
While Act 423 passed with bipartisan support, it raised objections from a few lawmakers who said the legislation repeats mistakes made in earlier attempts at criminal justice overhauls by being too lenient on offenders who repeatedly break the rules. A few notable stakeholder groups, including county prosecutors, remained officially neutral on the bill despite their concerns.
State Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, one of the lawmakers who spoke against the bill, said it did not do enough to solve the underlying problems of crime. In an interview Friday, he expressed doubts that the law will save much money by diverting people from prison.
“It’s like squeezing a balloon,” King said. “You think you’re squeezing the air out of one part, and it just ends up somewhere else.”
At last week’s meeting at the Lonoke County Courthouse, 23rd Judicial Circuit Prosecuting Attorney Chuck Graham said the new law puts him and his colleagues in the tough spot of explaining to victims why the perpetrators of the crimes against them are getting so many chances.
“We’re the ones who have to sit across from these folks and explain to them what happens,” Graham said.
In touting the new law, lawmakers and Community Correction officials have repeatedly used “knucklehead” to describe the person it is aimed at — not hardened criminals.
Now, locking up parole and probation violators will shift more to Community Correction — which supervises more than 50,000 offenders and operates five low-security lockups that can house 1,628 offenders.
Before the law was passed, probationers were not eligible for the technical violator program at the Community Correction centers. In order to house offenders who have never been to prison, the department had to adjust its programming to minimize contact with parole violators.
“We don’t want parolees teaching probationers things they don’t already know, and they will do that,” Tyler said.
A team at the department spent the summer overhauling the curriculum for the centers’ technical violator program. The program has four tracks: standard 90- and 180-day programs for minor and major violations, as well as shorter versions aimed at early release for good behavior.
The new curriculum ranges from life skills, such as prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and handling personal finances, to addiction treatment and employment preparation, according to a copy provided by the department.
While developing the curriculum, Community Correction officials expressed concern about housing medically frail offenders or people with histories of violence toward law enforcement officials. The Board of Corrections agreed to make some offenders with violent tendencies ineligible for the technical violator program and to house offenders with medical problems in prison infirmary beds under an amended program.
A spokesman for the Department of Correction said Friday that the prisons will use the curriculum provided by Community Correction.
The cost to implement the new program was mostly paid through two Justice Center grants totaling $253,335, Tyler said. Community Correction has temporarily reallocated a vacant deputy warden position in order to hire a hearing examiner while the law is being implemented. The salary for that position is $47,839 a year.
Separately, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has pledged $6.4 million to fund four crisis centers for the mentally ill. The centers are set to open under provisions of Act 423. Those centers are already in development, and that money is not being spent through Community Correction.
At the courthouse in Lonoke last week, lingering questions about the technicalities of the program — like what forms to use — and whether further revisions will be needed dissolved into tepid support.
“We want this thing to work,” said Graham. “We never want to see [the offenders] again.”