By Spencer Willems
Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday balked at the need for the state to invest in more prison space to address a growing inmate population.
While speaking with reporters about potential tax cuts come the next legislative session in January, Hutchinson said the state’s “ability to manage the prison populations” will be a variable in whatever cuts are proposed. But then he signaled that paying for a new prison will not likely be on his agenda next year.
“I don’t anticipate” a renewed discussion over expanding prison facilities, Hutchinson said. “Right now we’re managing our prison population well. We want to make sure public safety has the first priority. And budget second. At this point, I would not anticipate a need for future prison expansion budget dollars next year.”
Before the start of the 2015 regular legislative session, members of the Board of Corrections recommended that the state consider funding a new 1,000-bed facility — one that could have cost as much as $150 million.
Citing the economic burden to taxpayers, Hutchinson and lawmakers went another way and found increased funding and one-time expenditures to pay for increasing bed space at current state prisons, as well as pay for more parole officers to help reduce the flow of parole violators returning to prison.
At last week’s Board of Corrections meeting in Pine Bluff, an independent analyst reported that despite administrative efforts by the Parole Board and prison and parole officials to slow prison growth — which was the fastest in the country just two years ago — the state could expect 22,781 inmates by 2026.
Currently, state facilities are designed to contain only 15,157 inmates. As of Tuesday, they held 16,361.
During the meeting, corrections and parole officials discussed a range of approaches to bring down prison populations long-term, and some of the board’s members said a new prison should be part of the discussion.
On Tuesday, Hutchinson hailed as a good sign the gradual drop in the county jail backup — the number of state prisoners being held in county jails due to a lack of state beds — from nearly 3,000 just two years ago to nearly 1,000 now.
He said he thinks any legislative push for measures aimed at bringing down prison populations will flow from the Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force, which he created in 2015.
After over a year of meetings, the group — which is a mix of lawmakers, law enforcement officials, judges and mental health providers — is nearing its final proposals and has already recommended more money to pay for more parole and probation officers.
Hutchinson has recommended that the state re-evaluate the way it sentences inmates, saying the state’s sentencing guidelines need some “teeth,” or a way to require judges or prosecutors to justify any sentences that deviate from the guidelines set out by the Arkansas Sentencing Commission.
Beyond increasing money for parole officers, the task force has discussed the value of relying more on probation instead of prison for lower-level offenders as well as investing more in mental health services and job skill development for offenders.