District courts in Faulkner and Van Buren counties are partnering with local Adult Education Centers in an effort to increase employment and educational opportunities while also reducing the number of inmates incarcerated.

A portion of misdemeanor sentences will divert defendants to participate in educational courses in Conway or Clinton in lieu of jail time. Jail sentences will be partially or fully suspended as long as the individual completes their recommended studies, District Judge Chris R. Carnahan said. The program is possible through a partnership with the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton Adult Education Center.

"In some cases, after the initial testing, the defendant will be tracked in a GED program, or in others for reading or math help," he said. "Alternately, if a defendant's other educational needs are met, they will be tracked to obtain an Arkansas Department of Workforce Development Career Readiness certificate."

Career Readiness certificates are recognized nationwide, demonstrating to employers that the individual is ready to work, can follow instructions and is dependable.

The offer typically will be extended to young offenders who commit petty crimes.

By creating an opportunity to further defendants' educational needs, Carnahan said he hopes to see those who participate in the program seek careers upon completing their required studies.

"I intend to focus mainly on younger offenders for crimes such as shoplifting, but it is open to any qualifying defendant," he said. "Often persons engaged in petty theft do so not to feed a family, but to thrill-seek from the activity. They are usually unemployed or underemployed. I want to get them working."

Justice of the Peace Kris Kendrick brought the idea to court officials, noting there was a similar program in Crawford County used to combat recidivism.

Bringing a program that promotes education will benefit the community as a whole, he said.

"The fewer people that have to be incarcerated, the better it is for the county, the defendant and the general public," he said."We have an issue with the Faulkner County jail and the number of prisoners that are [un]necessarily housed there, lowering that number will save the county real dollars."

Sentencing defendants to the workforce program will deter misdemeanor offenders from becoming felony offenders, Carnahan said, adding that the educational program will help build and further individuals' abilities.

"[T]here can be no excuse left to a defendant if they receive government assistance, are unemployed and have this opportunity to become productive citizens with real workplace skills," he said. "I want to avoid a misdemeanor defendant [from] becoming a felony defendant. Unemployment with time on one's hands is the number one indicator that someone will engage in criminal activity. My sentencing to this program is going to focus on filling that free time and completing the education they need to compete for good jobs."

Kim Darling, who is the program director, said certain individuals who currently receive government assistance are eligible to receive pay for attending the classes.

Court officials will monitor defendants' progress in the program and review each case once a month. Defendants will typically be allotted four months to complete the training. However, more time could be extended to individuals with special needs or if other issues arise, Holly Belk, district court clerk, said.

Staff writer Marisa Hicks can be reached at mhicks@thecabin.net.