opinion by Maylon Rice
Editor’s note: Maylon Rice is a former newspaper reporter, columnist and editor at several newspapers over the past 40 years. He ran, unsuccessfully for the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2012. A native of Warren, Rice lives in Fayetteville.
Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.
It came as no surprise this past week when Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson, a former federal prosecutor, unveiled a plan to ratchet up efforts to curtail violent crime and illegal drugs.
Hutchinson is also a former head of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and then head of Border and Transportation Security for the Department of Homeland Security. It is no stretch of the imagination that he will be spring boarding any crime agendas from these publicly appointed positions he once briefly held as an administrator.
While it is easy, yes, even prudent to rail against violent crime and illegal drugs early in the campaign and say changes are needed. It is harder to express how the state will afford these improvements. Hutchinson, while talking swiftly about the costs to implement these programs, leaves out exactly how the state will finance these efforts.
It’s a comfortable stance for the campaign to be tough one crime here in late May or early June. It is still a long way to November. Sure, it is best to come out for tougher laws, more jail time, and better law enforcement resources. But the larger questions remain: How, just how are Arkansans going to pay for the initiatives and improvements?
An added hurdle for Hutchinson is that his own party members are ham-strung by “no-tax” pledges signed to get them elected or re-elected.
In his statement last week, Hutchinson said in an interview with the Arkansas News Bureau: “I am willing to budget what is needed for a new prison if that is what is needed to make sure that our violent criminals get off the streets of Arkansas.”
That’s tough sounding talk on crime. Perhaps it will be a tougher task to pass in a state balanced budget, to include what some state experts in the prison system are saying will be a $85 million dollar one-time expenditure for additional long-term prison facilities. And then there is a cost to staff and run that new prison.
There is also talk of another $1 million a year to fund the state’s crumbling parole system and an additional $300,000 a year for re-entry programs for offenders to stay out of county jails or re-visit the Arkansas prison systems. And then there is the unknown cost of providing increased funding to the Arkansas State Police, area drug courts, and regional drug tasks forces around the state. No doubt all these agencies could use more funding.
But how much? How soon? And from where will this funding come from?
Hutchinson does make one very bold sounding plank on his campaign crime platform. He said will only appoint individuals with criminal-justice experience to the state parole board. Hmmm. Let’s stop and think about that mandate.
Critics will scold Hutchinson for this effort. Sociologists, psychologists and average Arkansans need not apply. Only folks with law enforcement backgrounds will be in charge of letting paroles skip out early on their court-mandated sentences. We all may need to think about this for a while.
Overall, Hutchinson was guarded in his remarks about sweeping changes to such legislation as, Act 570 of 2011, which revised sentencing laws in an effort to reduce overcrowding in our prisons and backups in our county jails. But he did indicate, as asked by several law enforcement leaders in the state who have been calling for some “tweaks” to that Act need to be addressed.
Hutchinson’s stance on crime and punishment was expected because of his background. It also comes out early, as he tries to overcome Mike Ross’ – his Democratic opponent – early endorsement from 65 of the state’s 75 elected sheriffs.
Summing up Hutchinson’s plan as bold is an understatement. His most ardent supporters for a “get tough on crime platform” will be his own GOP legislators. But most of them will run for the exits when increases for taxes or fees are talked about to get the job done.
We wish for more information on how we are going to pay for this ambitious and costly program. And how he will bring his own party on board should he be the governor-elect?