Efforts are underway to examine the criminal justice system in Arkansas and eventually come up with recommendations to improve state prisons.
UALR Bowen Law School professor Adjoa Aiyetoro is overseeing the project. She’s been working with elected officials and community leaders for nearly a year on research concerning racial disparities in sentencing and treatment at Arkansas courts and prisons.
“When you go into prison and when you get a criminal charge as a felon that impacts all the rest of your life, but it also impacts your family,” said Aiyetoro. “We are losing our communities of color and it’s no longer this obvious outright racism that says people can’t go to certain schools or get certain jobs, but it is an institutionalized form of racism that no longer has a conscious motivation.”
As part of the project, Aiyetoro says teams of researchers are reviewing records from certain prisons across the state to determine a person’s racial background, as well as other demographic factors, before he or she was charged with a crime and what sentence that person later received.
She says studies have shown that young people who live in poverty and lack a quality education are at greater risk for committing criminal acts.
“I guess my concern is not simply just addressing the disparities in who’s going to prison, but in addressing how do we create and maintain a whole class, race, and group of people who often seem to get disparate treatment and tougher sentences for committing the same crimes as people from other races or wealthier backgrounds,” Aiyetoro said.
As part of the statewide project, Aiyetoro heads a 59-person steering committee that includes law enforcement officials, judges, defense attorneys, correction officials, and crime victims' advocates. She says research findings could provide the foundation for certain social, political, and judicial reforms in the state.