WALNUT RIDGE, AR (KAIT) – A new law went into effect last July to ease overcrowding in state prisons, but local law enforcement grew concerned that the changes could cause problems in local jails.
The Public Safety Improvement Act, or Act 570, provides shorter sentences for some property and drug crimes. The past few months have given sheriff's departments around the state time to deal with the changes.
"We knew it was going to decrease the prison population, but most of the sheriffs had some concern what it was going to do to our local county jails," said Jody Dotson, Lawrence County Sheriff.
Dotson says his department worried that Act 570 would create a backlog in the county jail. Instead, he houses far more misdemeanor prisoners because of a new set of offenses.
"We've seen an increase in our district court dockets due to the changing of the laws," Dotson said.
The dockets have grown larger at the Lawrence County Courthouse in Walnut Ridge. Dotson says more misdemeanors have slowed down the district court.
"There's a lot more misdemeanor thefts now, where it would have been a felony in the past," he said.
Act 570 increased the felony threshold for theft from $500 to $1,000, so most cases are handled in district court. The law also changed the weight amounts on marijuana possession, so having quantities of four ounces of less is now a misdemeanor.
"There's a lot more marijuana charges going through district court now instead of circuit court," Dotson said, "and they're having to serve their jail time in the county jails."
Reduced penalties for methamphetamine possession, though, appear to have had little effect on local law enforcement.
"The meth still has enough bite to the sentencing on that even through circuit court that we've not really seen a great influx of meth," Dotson added. "It is a little harder for us to make a manufacturing charge now than it used to be."
Dotson keeps all 42 beds full in the Lawrence County Detention Center, but the large increase in misdemeanor marijuana arrests has yet to create overcrowding.
"They're supposed to be paying their debt to society, not be burden on it," Dotson said, "so we put them to work so they can do something to improve community instead of just sitting there and the community having to pay to feed and house them."
To fully review Act 570, follow this link.