Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jared Henderson unveiled his criminal justice platform on Monday, laying out a plan he says will divert thousands of people from prisons and jails in the state, which has one of the nation's highest incarceration rates.
Focused mostly on lower-level and nonviolent offenders, Henderson's plan included promises to de-prioritize drug possession and decriminalize marijuana; invest money in education and job-training programs aimed at prisoners re-entering society; expand access to mental health care; reform cash bail; and reduce the number of offenders returned to prison for parole and probation violations.
The plan included mostly positions espoused by Democrats who make up the minority in the state Legislature.
However, some of the proposals -- such as funding for mental health programs and greater leniency toward parole violations -- have gained traction among Republicans, including Gov. Asa Hutchinson, as the state struggles with overcrowded prisons.
Hutchinson, who is running for re-election, signed into law omnibus criminal justice legislation in 2016 aimed at diverting parole and probation violators from prison. The governor also devoted about $6.2 million annually to help open four crisis stabilization units across the state to treat mentally ill offenders.
Arkansas has the sixth-highest incarceration rate in the U.S., according to Prison Policy Initiative, with 900 people locked up per 100,000. The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world.
At one point in 2015, Arkansas had the fastest-growing prison population in the country, fueled in large part by re-commitments of parolees and probationers. While the growth has since slowed, the state's prison population is still expected to grow by thousands over the next decade.
Henderson, a former executive at Teach for America, previously proposed reducing the state's more than $556 million corrections budget to help pay for teacher salary increases.
His plan, he clarified Monday, would rely on long-term savings that would come if fewer people are locked up. In the "worst case" scenario, he said, his platform would be revenue neutral.
"We'll have to make some investments early," Henderson said.
The advocacy group Decarcerate Arkansas assisted Henderson in developing his plan, he said. Morgan Leyenberger, a social worker and campaign chairman with the group, praised the candidate's plan as a "good first step" of committing more resources toward the justice system.
"Right now our system is really bare bones," Leyenberger said. "We're really lacking in programs and opportunities that give people hope, that give people incentive to change their behavior."
Henderson's campaign estimated that about 9,300 people would be diverted from prisons and jails under his plan.
More than half of those diversions would come from changes to the cash bail system, which would keep space in county jails limited to offenders who are deemed a public safety threat. Henderson pointed to Kentucky as an example of a state that has attempted to limit the use of cash bail.
"Other states around the country have been taking this on, and taking this on aggressively. We've seen a national trend with lower crime and lower incarceration rates," Henderson said. "I think we can do it better and faster."
A spokesman for Hutchinson's campaign, Jamie Barker, said Henderson's plan would hurt public safety.
Barker said Henderson's plan to keep 5,000 people out of county jails through bail reform would inevitably lead to dangerous offenders being released.
"Mr. Henderson does not have the facts and his idea to release more from prison is naive and dangerous," Barker said in a statement. "There is very little new policy in the proposal and what is new is dangerous to the public."
The Libertarian candidate in the governor's race, Batesville pastor Mark West, said Monday that Henderson's approach seemed similar to his own ideas, though he added that his plans would rely on greater investment from the private sector.
At his press conference Monday, Henderson said he was "categorically against" prison privatization. Henderson said the governor has "quietly been pursuing" a private jail in southeast Arkansas.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has reported that at least two counties in the area -- Drew and Bradley -- are in contract negotiations with Louisiana-based LaSalle Corrections to build a 660-bed regional jail that will be filled mostly with state inmates. The Department of Correction, which is governed by the Board of Corrections, has yet to finalize an agreement with the counties regarding the proposed facility.
The department, which housed 15,584 inmates as of Monday, has struggled with overcrowding and negative publicity regarding outbreaks of violence and several deaths linked to a synthetic drug known as K2.
Metro on 10/02/2018
Print Headline: Bail system, parole changes part of Henderson platform