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Arkansas panelists approve new prison sentencing guide

A new sentencing grid that for the first time would suggest a range of years in state prison -- rather than a single recommended term -- was approved by the Arkansas Sentencing Commission on Friday.

The commission earlier this summer proposed the first change to the optional grid since it was adopted in 1994, after being directed to do so by lawmakers.

Under the proposal, judges would have more flexibility to adhere to the punishment guidelines offered by the state, though they still would not be required to do so.

A legislative committee must approve the new guidelines before they can take effect Jan. 1.

If approved, it's unclear how the new grid would affect the number of people sent to prison in Arkansas, said Sentencing Commission Director Sandy Moll.

Moll said such data would not be available until 2019, after a full year of implementation.

The Department of Correction also has not made estimations based off the proposed grid, a spokesman said.

In recent years, judges' rulings have increasingly complied with the grid, reaching a high of 65 percent in 2015, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the commission.

With the new grid allowing judges' rulings to fall within a range, Moll said, she expects compliance rates to climb even higher.

The grid is made up of a vertical ranking 1 through 10 by the seriousness of the offense and a horizontal row that tracks the offender's criminal history on a zero through five score.

On Friday, the Sentencing Commission also approved a new offense seriousness ranking, an action taken after each legislative session.

Each cell of the new grid recommends between one and three options: a term in state prison, assignment to a community correctional facility, or an alternative sanction, which includes probation.

Under its new format, the grid has fewer cells in which a prison term is the only recommended punishment. It also has fewer cells offering all three options.

Revisions to the grid were ordered as part of an omnibus criminal justice package, Act 423, passed by lawmakers earlier this year as part of an effort to reduce overcrowding in state prisons.

The new law also authorized crisis centers for mentally ill offenders, as well as a new range of punishments for parolees and probationers who get caught breaking the rules or are charged with misdemeanors.

The new grid was prepared in consultation with prosecutors and public defenders, Moll said. No one responded during a public comment period before the commission's vote Friday, according to commission staff.

Greg Parrish, the director of the Arkansas Public Defender Commission, said the agency is still reviewing the new grid and will have a meeting next week where it will be discussed.

Bob McMahan, the head of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said his members were generally supportive.

Circuit Judge Gordon Webb of Harrison told fellow commissioners during the conference call in which the vote was held, "I won't say I'm terribly surprised [about the lack of public comment], but I'm a little bit concerned that people are not paying that much attention."

The commission voted unanimously to approve both the new offense seriousness rankings and the sentencing grid, with barely any discussion.

Moll said the commission discussed both proposals for several hours during a June meeting. Friday's vote involved four new commissioners, who took office after the June meeting.

Copies of the proposed grid are available on the Sentencing Commission's website.

A Section on 08/12/2017

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