A rally is set for Friday afternoon at the state capitol, with a range of speakers objecting to what’s being called the mass incarceration of citizens in the U.S. It comes as Arkansas is dealing with a record prison population and state lawmakers continue reevaluating how offenders are sentenced.
“One out of every 100 adults in the United States is either in prison currently, in jail or on probation,” said Julie Kyle of Fayetteville, who is one of the organizers of the event, which she hopes will increase awareness of the devastating impact sentencing policies have on families and communities.
“We aren’t happy with the news that we see every day. The numbers of people who need help for drug and alcohol addiction, for mental illness, these people, a lot of them, find themselves at one point or another in prison or in jail. But there is a great lack of access to care,” Kyle said.
She points to statistics showing the U.S. leads all other nations in the percentage of citizens behind bars and that about three-quarters of those are for non-violent offenses.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, the nation toughened sentences for drug offenses, which led to an increase in the prison population. But some, like Tonya Sougey of Mabelvale, say that impacted people who could be better served by counseling.
“I have a loved one in Oklahoma who’s serving life without parole for a non-violent drug crime due to the mandatory minimum of three strikes, you’re out,” Sougey said.
Kevin Ott was on parole for his second drug conviction, which was in Arkansas, when he was arrested in 1996 with three ounces of methamphetamine. Sougey says he had been selling to support his addiction.
“So instead of getting the rehab that he asked for when he got arrested, they just threw him in jail and then the third time he’s gone for life. Unless change is made, the man’s going to die in prison for a non-violent drug crime and he’s not the only one. There’s thousands of them. It’s just horrible how we’re treating them, when they should be hospitalized and getting help.”
In recent years, lawmakers around the country have been reassessing drug laws.
Republican state Senator Jeremy Hutchinson of Benton is chairman of the Arkansas Senate Judiciary Committee and notes passage of a law three years ago intended to ease prison overcrowding by reducing sentences for some property and drug crimes.
“I think there’s certainly an open mind at the legislature. We passed Act 570 in hopes that we would not be incarcerating non-violent, mostly drug addicts and we wanted to increase the number of people on probation and not incarcerate them,” Hutchinson said.
But that was before eight-time parole absconder Darrell Dennis was arrested last May, charged with committing a murder in Little Rock. He was free at the time despite multiple felony charges and parole violations. Also, the murder happened less than 30 hours after his release from the Pulaski County Jail.
Senator Hutchinson says the outcry caused by Dennis’ case prompted lawmakers last year to tighten laws for those on probation.
“The pendulum may have swung a little too far and now you’ve seen the legislature retrench and try to strengthen probation and actually to incarcerate more people who certainly abscond or violate the terms of their probation.”
As a result, Arkansas now has a record prison population, with many backed up in county jails, waiting for bed space in state prisons.
Hutchinson says he does support trying to find more ways to provide counseling.
“Absolutely. As a prosecutor, I saw a lot of crimes and mental illness or post traumatic stress disorder. There’s a lot of alcoholism and drug addiction that is fuel for a lot of those crimes," Hutchinson said. "Now the problem is that it costs money. But the more preventative measures we can take by getting people treated for their issues, whether they be mental or addiction, I think that certainly will pay dividends.”
In the case of Darrell Dennis, Thursday Pulaski County Judge Chris Piazza ordered a mental evaluation of the suspect, who wants to represent himself in court.
Hutchinson says sentencing guidelines could be revised in next year’s legislative session, but acknowledges it’s a struggle for lawmakers to balance providing treatment for non-violent offenders and protecting the public from those who are a threat to the community.
“We want to look at the statistics, the evidence, the numbers and try to strike that happy medium.”
Friday's rally is the culmination of a week of awareness events by the national coalition seeking an end to mass incarceration. It begins at 1 p.m. in the state Capitol Rotunda and will feature several speakers.