Prison reform plan approved (The Courier)

by Senator-elect Greg Standridge

LITTLE ROCK — The Senate approved legislation to implement the governor’s ambitious prison reform plan. It’s now in the House of Representatives.

Senate Bill 472 embodies much of the governor’s proposals to relieve prison overcrowding. It authorizes the state Correction Department to contract with counties, the federal government and other states to house Arkansas inmates. Already the Board of Correction has approved a contract with a privately-operated prison in Bowie County, Texas, to house 228 inmates for $36 per inmate per day, plus $2.42 a day per inmate for medical coverage.

The governor proposes to expand specialty courts, such as drug courts, and SB 472 sets up a task force of criminal justice professionals to make a thorough evaluation of the effectiveness of the drug courts now in operation. Members of the task force will not be paid.

SB 472 creates a “pay for success” program authorizing the Department of Community Correction to contract with private organizations such as halfway houses, job placement companies, faith-based organizations and rehabilitation facilities. Private organizations would receive financial bonuses if they lower recidivism rates of inmates under their care.

Also, SB 472 would expand “re-entry” programs to better prepare inmates for productive lives outside of prison. They would be taught job skills and coping skills, such as anger management.

A significant innovation in SB 472 is its emphasis on treatment of drug abuse and mental illness.

It directs prison officials to make sure all inmates have applied for Medicaid, which would pay for treatment. The bill authorizes the Human Services Department to accept Medicaid applications from inmates over the Internet.

Also last week, the Senate Education Committee advanced legislation to change eligibility criteria for lottery scholarships.

Senate Bill 5 would improve the lottery’s cash flow by changing how scholarships are awarded. Now, college students who qualify get $2,000 their freshman year and $3,000 their sophomore year. SB 5 would award freshmen $1,000 and sophomores $4,000.

It would not change scholarship awards to juniors and seniors, which would remain at $4,000 and $5,000.

A controversial provision of SB 5 would significantly change eligibility requirements for high school graduates. Now, they can qualify by graduating with a 2.5 grade point average on a scale of 1 to 4, on which 4 is an A, 3 is a B and 2 is a C. Students also qualify by scoring 19 on the ACT, a national standardized test used for college admissions.

Under SB 5, maintaining a 2.5 GPA in high school would no longer make a high school graduate eligible for a lottery scholarship. This provision in SB 5 levels the playing field between public and private schools, because private school students cannot qualify with a 2.5 GPA, they must score a 19 on the ACT.

Snow days

Two new laws enacted this session will give school districts more flexibility in making up snow days.

Act 143 allows superintendents to open at 10 a.m. or close at 1 p.m., up to five times a school year, without having to make up the entire day.

Act 286 allows school districts to make up snow days in increments of 60 minutes at a time, and it takes effect immediately. That allows schools to add an hour to two at the end of the regular school days between now and June.

Senator-elect Greg Standridge will represent District 16 when he is sworn in next month.