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Governor Beebe's Weekly Column and Radio Address: The Public Safety Improvement Act


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Prison overcrowding in Arkansas is rapidly approaching critical mass. Our penitentiaries are full, and more than a thousand additional inmates are backed up in our county jails, awaiting transfer to state prisons. This past week, we filed a comprehensive piece of legislation aimed at slowing prison growth and making our state a safer place.

The Public Safety Improvement Act will help to keep prison beds available for violent criminals while still holding non-violent offenders accountable for their actions. It will slow the growth of our corrections system while working to reduce crime rates and recidivism.

First, let me clear the air about several important things the bill does not do. It does not decriminalize any illegal activity. It does not reduce the sentence of anyone currently in jail. And it does not change the sentence for any violent or sexual crime.

What the Public Safety Improvement Act does is change how we look at non-violent crimes, especially drug crimes, in Arkansas. Those who manufacture and traffic in significant amounts of drugs will still spend lengthy terms in prison. However, we will work to punish those arrested for drug possession, especially first-time offenders, in ways that do not take up prison beds. Through drug courts, improved probation options and other forms of supervision, non-violent offenders will have the chance to turn their lives around without a long prison sentence. If they continue down the wrong path, prison will remain a viable option.

Currently, Arkansas's probation system is not used as well, and as often, as it can be. Our bill gives more resources to the Department of Community Corrections, through increased funding and additional tools that address violations. On the flip side, we will also make the Department more accountable for its actions. We believe that this combination will prove the system's worth, and give more judges the confidence to use probation as a tool to divert low-level offenders away from prison.

This legislation is the result of a tremendous amount of hard work by legislators, judges, prosecutors and law-enforcement officials. Although there has been spirited debate, I think the balanced final outcome will slow prison growth and make our communities safer. While all those involved came into the process with their own perspective and ideas, everyone recognized that the cost of doing nothing was too great to ignore.

If we don't act now, our growing prison population will require $1 billion in new tax money over the next 10 years, money we don't have. I don't believe that the people of Arkansas want to raise taxes to pay for it, and if prisons become increasingly overcrowded, the federal government will step in and order us to release prisoners. We want to control our own destiny.

By acting now, we can save up to $875 million in the next 10 years, and invest some of that savings in expanded drug treatment and mental health care, more drug courts and additional probation officers. These are the tools that will help make Arkansas a safer place for all of us.

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