DecARcerate was proud to partner with Megan Kurten for her Clinton School of Public Service Capstone Paper. Kurten’s paper deals with Racial Disparities and Mass Incarceration in Arkansas.
Megan Kurten is a graduate of Hendrix College with a degree in history and political science. She graduated from the Clinton School of Public Service with a concurrent law degree from Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law. She has worked as a lab manager at Children’s Hospital, has served as an AmeriCorps member at the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, and has volunteered with CALS to help transgender patients get correct IDs. Kurten’s public service interests include civil rights, discrimination, and social justice.
To learn more about Megan’s project and her findings, read the Q&A below or read the full paper here.
How did you choose this topic for your Capstone?
When we look at mass incarceration over the past decade, Arkansas has one of the fastest growing prison populations, and one of the highest rates of racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The scope and reality of criminal justice issues in Arkansas necessitate broad reforms to increase equity in our state’s justice adjudication. As a student and an Arkansan, I wanted to research and find solutions that could tackle decarceration from several angles, including eliminating racial discrimination.
Please summarize your key findings.
People of color, particularly the African American community, are particularly besieged by discrimination in the criminal justice system. Arkansas’ incarceration rate is 53% higher than the national average, and the discrepancy rate between African Americans and white offenders is 11% higher than the national average. In addition to incarceration rates, this study examined juvenile justice, sentencing practices, correctional supervision reform for parole and probation services, and recidivism trends. Despite evidence of roughly equivalent crime rates across race, people of color constitute a higher percentage of juvenile offenders, new admissions to prison, and serve longer terms while in prison with less likelihood of parole. This project found several intervention points to decrease the rates of these disparities, and the study also posited some broader reforms meant to curb prison population growth in general.
Briefly, these proposed reforms include (1) racial impact statement legislation; (2) redrafting of sentencing guidelines: reduction of non-violent sentence terms and institute mandatory maximums; (3) reinvestment of criminal justice savings into correctional supervision: parole and probation officers; (4) recategorizing of punishments for drug, theft, and forgery statutes; and (5) decrease parole and probation sanctions for violations, particularly eliminating prison for technical violations.
What was the hardest part of doing the research?
Last year, a team of Clinton School students did a really rich qualitative project for DecARcerate, and I wanted to make sure I was contributing something new to the conversation, so my project did not focus on interviews. Instead I looked at Arkansas Department of Corrections, Community Corrections, Division of Youth Services, Bureau of Justice Statistics, and U.S. Census data and worked on statistical analysis of criminal justice trends and rates of racial disparities. There is plenty of data that is relevant for the project, but there is also some missing. Data reporting between correctional institutions could be improved and expanded, including keeping demographic information. The hardest part of the research was tracking the numbers through all of Arkansas correctional systems and coming up with the real picture of justice in our state.
What was the most surprising thing you found in doing your research?
From the research, it is very obvious that racial disparities are rampant in Arkansas criminal justice. Again, this is despite many studies that show crime rates are roughly equivalent across race. These studies include drug crimes, violent crimes, theft and burglary, and technical violation recidivism. Particularly for theft and drug use, that together constitute almost 40% of prison admissions, equivalence in crime commission rates should result in imprisonment rates that mirror Arkansas’ general population. Instead, one in three African American men, and one in six Latino men will be incarcerated, compared to one in twenty-four white men. Not only do we see these surprising disparities in sentencing, but in Arkansas, people of color are significantly more likely to be denied parole eligibility, and put on death row. Most surprising of all, death row inmates only have white victims.
Throughout the research, it is evident that white people and people of color are treated very differently under the criminal justice system. This is inexcusable, and our first stage of reforms needs to happen now.
Please summarize your most important recommendations from doing this work. How difficult/easy would it be to implement them?
(1) Racial impact study legislation is an “equity safeguard” that requires any criminal justice reform has a thorough study of the impact that reform would have on populations of color. Because many of these reforms include class A misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, Arkansas racial impact statement should make sure to include those crimes in it’s required study categories. It is also advisable to include how and who would conduct the study when proposing the racial impact legislation as a bill.
(2) Sentencing reform can be very complicated when determining which pieces are most relevant for the current criminal justice and legislative context. Arkansas is currently ripe for decreasing sentences for low-level non-violent, non-sexual offenses; reformatting drug, theft, and forgery statutes; and instituting realistic maximums for crimes based on severity. Currently, Arkansas’ average prison sentence is 196% what the sentencing guidelines recommend, and people of color serve sentences at least 11% longer than their white counterparts. Low-level, non-sexual offenses constitute 70% of prison admissions, and reforms on those sentencing statutes will do the most to decrease prison population growth. This study recommends decreasing all sentence lengths by 6 months to a year for offenses of serious-level two through five. Further, creating realistic maximums and reducing the amounts added on top of those maximums will result in more sentencing equity.
(3) Improving parole and probation release processes will help remove thousands of people from state supervision. Technical violations are the overwhelming majority of parole and probation revocations, even though a technical violation means no new crime has been committed. This means that revocations for missed meetings, late fee payments, and failures to appear are inundating the criminal justice system. Decreasing punishment for technical violation and decreasing length of parole and probation terms will clear up this expensive clog without any negative effects on public safety.
If you had another year to either do more research or try to implement your findings, what would you do?
On the short term, I think we need to pass racial impact legislation. That is the groundwork for all the rest of the reforms. It says to Arkansas and the legislature that we want fair and equitable reforms, then opens up the floor for more specific sentencing or parole reform.
After that, it is a balancing act of introducing the right packages of reforms at the right time. That’s based on more than just a call for equity, but also what lobbies, legislators, and institutions can support. I think decreasing sentences for low-level, non-violent, non-sexual offenses (levels 1-6) by six months to two years in the sentencing guidelines, and then retroactively applying those sentence terms is the next step. That will help set up judges and prosecutors with new, more fair sentences for incoming offenders and will release a few hundred inmates doing longer sentences for lesser crimes.
Also intermediately, I think we need to decrease the time offenders are sentenced to parole or probation. It puts a strain on corrections officers and their offices financially and on time and ability to supervise. Additionally, it creates an environment where the state is just waiting to catch the offender again, but for the most minor infractions like missing a drug screening, traveling out of state, or not completing enough community service. If these offenders are given less time in community supervision, it will save correctional money, which can be re-diverted into hiring and training corrections officers and reentry programming.
Long-term, I would love to see Arkansas financially and socially invest in a rehabilitative and restorative criminal justice system instead of just a punitive one. An ideal system would have restorative justice programs and community supervision programs for juveniles and young adult offenders; equitable sentencing guidelines without mandatory minimums; decreased value required to trigger felony statutes for drug, theft, and forgery offenses, an increase in the use of alternative sanctions to incarceration, including community service, rehabilitation and substance abuse programs, and probation; shorter parole and probation sentences with less severe sanctions for technical violations, and an evolving racial impact statement that ensures all these reforms were implemented equitably.
Because these reforms are targeting the areas with the most rampant racial discrimination, their implementation will decrease disparities and slow incarcerated population growth over the next decade.
There's increasing interest in implicit bias. Where have you seen implicit bias in the work that you've done, and what remedies, if any, would you propose for it?
One of the major limitations of this project is that it started at sentencing and did not thoroughly discuss police, judge, or prosecutor discrimination. However, these three actors are commonly seen as the face of criminal justice discrimination. In Arkansas this is no different. African Americans are twice as likely to be searched by police, more than eight times as likely to have the prosecutor push for a sentence higher than the guidelines recommend, and at least six times as likely to be sentenced above those guideline recommendations.
Within the scope of this project, we see that African American offenders are less likely to be eligible for parole than their white counterparts, and if they are eligible are held more than 2 years past their eligibility date than white parolees. Further, African American offenders make up more than 70% of death row inmates but 0% of death row inmate victims. Sometimes statistics speak very loudly, and I think the racism in the system is pretty evident based on these statistics alone.
As for remedies, all the recommendations in this project, particularly those discussed above, were generated with mitigating racial disparities in mind.
Each phase or target of the research and recommendations was selected because it showed significant discrimination and therefore was needed in a reform package (1) to fix the disparity there, and also (2) because there was significant potential for improvement. One reform not specifically discussed but absolutely crucial for eliminating bias is increased training for criminal justice professionals, including (1) implicit bias training, and (2) training on risk assessment tools that evaluate an offender based on history and circumstance, not color.
How can someone who is just beginning to get involved in this area best contribute? What can groups like decARcerate do to help?
I think one of the things Arkansas needs the most right now is constituents calling for criminal justice reform. Groups like decARcerate are crucial for compiling ideas and proposing packages that will have positive impacts if implemented, but fostering constituent support is as important as financial support in convincing legislators to implement change.
Also, I think it is important to curate the narrative on offender populations. Often, public perception of criminal justice reform is narrow and thinks only of career criminals, instead of the thousands of families ripped apart by a disbelief in the possibility of rehabilitation. Our criminal justice system exists to rehabilitate and protect public safety. As a state, we need to understand how many of these reforms will have a positive effect on civil rights in our state at absolutely no risk to public safety. DecARcerate and other groups can help by continuing to advocate for offender populations and those affected by the criminal justice system to get the qualitative and quantitative information needed to push reforms through the legislation.