LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) — Currently, Arkansas has the fastest-growing prison population in the country, and state officials are pushing to reduce it.
In 2015, the Arkansas Department of Corrections put 70% more people in prison than it did in 2012. That same year, Governor Hutchinson announced he’d hired the Council of State Governments Justice Center (JC) to reduce the number of inmates and save the state money.
The JC presented its final plan to the state’s legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force on Tuesday.
The JC presented eight different options. One of which, would reduce prison sentences for those charged on a technicality, like missing a probation appointment or failing a drug test.
“Right now in Arkansas, more than half of the people coming in to the prison system are people who are being revoked from supervision,” said Andrew Barbee with the JC. “That means they’re on probation or parole, they’ve committed a violation and brought back in to the prison system. What we found is, that group of people are staying upwards of 15 months, and more than 1/4 of them, the violation they committed, it was not a new arrest of any sort, not even a low-level misdemeanor arrest.”
Barbee said their research showed that by reducing those sentences, ADC could free-up beds and reduce some of the overcrowding in Arkansas prisons.
Another large population in the Department of Corrections is the mentally ill and homeless.
“When the police officers say, ‘Okay, we don’t need to arrest this person and take them to jail.’ Right now, we don’t have a place to put them,” explained Kim Arnold, executive director of NAMI Arkansas.
Another policy proposed by JC would increase funding and training for crisis stabilization units for the mentally ill. Something Arnold said she can get behind.
“We need that cooling off place, a crisis stabilization unit. It’s vital. We have to have those. So policy eight, that’s my favorite”, she says, adding she’s confident getting the mentally ill out of prison and in to mental health facilities can also reduce prison populations.
“Even if everything proposed is adopted, we are still over 2,000 beds short, from where we are today,” said one member of the Task Force at Tuesday’s hearing.
The problem: many of the legislators seemed to expect a fix from the JC for the overcrowding, while the proposed policies seem to only be a band-aid.
“It’s a little disappointing that we couldn’t impact the prison system even greater, and maybe alleviate the need for additional prison space”, explained the Task Force’s chair, Jeremy Hutchinson. He said the proposed policies are a step in the right direction.
“I was hopeful we’d have a lot greater impact on the prison population. However, with that comes additional risk; letting people out who don’t need to be out, so I think we have struck the middle ground. We can see how this works and if we need to adjust further, we can in future sessions, but I think it’s wise, when you’re dealing with public safety, to move slowly and deliberatively. And use data to back it up,” the state senator says finally.
Senator Hutchinson took the plan to Governor Hutchinson Tuesday to find money in the budget to pay for these reforms.
The plans could be presented before the full legislature as early as November.
Tuesday, the Council of State Governments, or CSG, presented their ideas for how the state can reduce the number of prisoners locked up in Arkansas.
CSG presented eight different options.
1. Focus supervision resources on those most likely to re-offend
2. Increase availability of community-based substance abuse centers
3. Reconfigure the ACC’s residential facilities
4. Reduce sentences for probation and parole violators
5. Improve parole profess
6. Reserve prisons for people convicted of most serious offenses.
7. Expand eligibility and access to compensation for victims of crimes.
8. Additional training for officers on mental illness.