New Rehabilitation-Focused Justice Initiative Comes To Arkansas

Smart Justice Initiative Targets Early Intervention in District Courts
Left to right: Smart Justice Initiative County Coordinator Zac George, Judge Elect Deidre Luker, Judge Clayton McCall, and Russellville Police Chief David Ewing
Left to right: Smart Justice Initiative County Coordinator Zac George, Judge Elect Deidre Luker, Judge Clayton McCall, and Russellville Police Chief David Ewing

Judges, law enforcement, treatment providers, and others gathered in Pope County to talk about a new initiative underway called the Smart Justice Pretrial Initiative. This effort will work to address the root causes of criminal behavior, focusing on rehabilitation and reducing the chances of recidivism. It will focus on reaching people who are in district court.

“Many of the folks who were coming out of prison, we could have found them first in district court as their life was becoming unmanageable and they were starting to get in trouble at a misdemeanor level,” said Restore Hope Executive Director Paul Chapman. “So the thought is that we need to go upstream and partner with district courts.”

Restore Hope Executive Director Paul Chapman (left) with Judge Clayton McCall
Restore Hope Executive Director Paul Chapman (left) with Judge Clayton McCall

District Court Judge Clayton McCall said working with people in district court presents a prime opportunity.

“I've had some experience in my career with seeing family dysfunction and other things going on. And so district court is interesting because for most of the population, their first interaction with court and sometimes their only interaction with court is through district court,” Judge McCall explained.

“I’m excited about the potential of this initiative. The people that are involved, they want to see the community improve, they want to see people succeed, and they're willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work and get it done. That's why I know that this is going to take off. I do think that this initiative with the people that are in it could really spark a cultural revolution,” he added.

District Court Judge Elect Deidre Luker said she is hopeful that the Smart Justice District Court Pretrial Initiative will better the justice system. 

“I knew that we needed something like it, and it was just an answer to a prayer when Judge McCall started talking about this [initiative]. I'm super pleased that there's some groundwork in place for us,” said Judge Elect Luker.

Judge McCall said people who are in district court typically have had a lapse in judgment and need help. 

“It can range how bad of a lapse it was, from getting caught with marijuana to getting drunk and in a fight with their spouse. By and large, they failed to make appropriate decisions.”

Smart Justice Initiative County Coordinator Zac George said the initiative will focus on helping people who have committed criminal misdemeanors. 

“We do a risk and needs assessment. Triage is the first thing that we do with people when they choose to be a part of this initiative. The risk level determines what kind of work we do,” said George.

“At a high level, what we're looking at is can we find individuals who we can engage with at a misdemeanor level while it’s still a misdemeanor level," Chapman explained. "And could we provide them with every opportunity that the community can to try to get their life back together for them and their families. That way, the problems that are causing that kind of behavior are addressed and they can go on and pursue happiness along with the rest of us." 

“Then we avoid the more expensive interventions, future victims, circuit court, and possibly incarceration. Because the more serious the crimes and the more serious the interventions are, the more expense to the taxpayer and to the family, to the individual and their families,” said Chapman. 

Chapman noted that research generally shows that people who are released from prison will be back in prison within three years.

Judge McCall pointed to a study on drug addiction, an issue among many people in court, that demonstrated how important it is for people who abuse drugs to be placed in the right environment to help them succeed. He said there are generally three areas to address when a person is in trouble: financial health, physical health, and social health.

“If we address those three things, our substance abuse rate should drop dramatically,” said Judge McCall. 

Coordinator Zac George explained that the initiative is voluntary and that he will try to educate people on the option before they go to court and go over the requirements to be a part of it.

Russellville Police Chief David Ewing said he thinks there are many advantages to the initiative. He said the initiative focuses on accountability and rather than solely on punishment. 

“From the law enforcement perspective, we handle problems but we can’t solve them. We don’t want recidivism. We need help. People deserve second chances. That’s where initiatives like this come in, so people are connected with services. We all want a peaceful community, ” said Chief Ewing.

Smart Justice is a magazine, podcast, and continuing news coverage from the nonprofit Restore Hope and covers the pursuit of better outcomes on justice system-related issues, such as child welfare, incarceration, and juvenile justice. Our coverage is solutions-oriented, focusing on the innovative ways in which communities are solving issues and the lessons that have been learned as a result of successes and challenges. 

The podcast is available on all major podcasting platforms.

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