A Reform Wrinkle in Arkansas

Northwest Arkansas Democratic Gazette

By Brenda Blagg

Just as state lawmakers were being encouraged to ease up on how long parole and probation violators are locked up, another parolee has been accused of murder.

The latest incident involves the fatal stabbing of a 62-year-old Little Rock woman. Police charged a 44-year-old who had reportedly absconded from parole with the murder.

The same man has reportedly been connected to an unrelated carjacking and an armed robbery in Little Rock. He has been charged with aggravated robbery and theft of property for those offenses.

He’s only been charged, not convicted, of any of these things, but just the possibility that he’s guilty will likely chill the most recent efforts to reduce the state’s prison population.

Arkansas’ prison population increased faster than any other state’s between 2012 and 2014, largely because the state cracked down on parole offenders after another parole absconder killed a Fayetteville teen in 2013.

That murder slowed prison reforms at the time, just as this latest one may affect current efforts.

Arkansas is nevertheless at one of those points where it either needs to build more prison beds or change its practices on who gets locked up and for how long.

Although the capacity of state prisons is 15,672, the number of inmates is pushing the 18,000 mark, with many of them being held in county jails until beds are available in the prison system. By 2023, the number could top 21,000, according to projections.

State prison officials had pushed earlier for a new 1,000-bed prison, which would have cost roughly $100 million.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson is disinclined to build a new prison but is pursuing a multi-faceted plan to address the overcrowding problem. It includes some new prison beds, hiring more parole and probation officers as well as investments in re-entry and alternative sentencing programs.

There is an ongoing effort in Springdale now to create a Northwest Arkansas center to ease state prisoners’ re-entry into community life.

The effort is still in its infancy but, like five other centers in the state, this one would presumably provide job training and counseling to prisoners before they are paroled.

The programs are intended to reduce recidivism rates and are part of the larger plan to bring down the prison population in this state.

Gov. Hutchinson named a task force in 2015 of legislators, judges and others involved in criminal justice to look for solutions. They’ve worked with the Council of State Government Justice Center, which recently presented policy recommendations that specifically included limiting the amount of time parole and probation violators are locked up.

A spokesman for the Justice Center said the primary driver of prison growth in the past few years has been the time that parolees are re-incarcerated for technical violations, such as failing a drug test or failing to pay fines.

Recommendations to Arkansas lawmakers include a 45-day limit for technical violations and a 90-day limit for those parolees and probationers charged with nonviolent or nonsexual misdemeanor offenses or for absconding.

Clearly, these are not those who have a history of violent or sexual offenses, nor even those who commit a new felony while out of prison. But easing the time for others with lesser violations would arguably slow the projected growth of the inmate population significantly.

That’s just one part of the equation to reduce the prison population and slow recidivism.

The report to lawmakers also recommended more effective services to treat substance abuse and mental health issues, as well as more parole and probation officers to reduce the caseloads per officer.

Mind you, state prison officials still say they need more beds in the system now. They’ll ask the Legislature for money to expand in the next session, when lawmakers will presumably also get some of this reform legislation.

Anyway they go, they’re going to have to spend more on criminal justice. If little changes to slow the prison population, the backup to county jails will worsen.

According to the Justice Center report, just payments to the county jails during the next six years could cost the state $103 million.

These aren’t easy problems to solve and this latest crime spree allegedly involving a parolee absconder didn’t help.