Panel Favors Steps to Ease Prison Crush in Arkansas

Arkansas Democratic Gazette

By John Moritz

Proposals aimed at reducing crowding in Arkansas’s prisons and helping offenders with addictions and mental illnesses were backed Tuesday by a group given the task by the Legislature more than a year ago of examining problems in the criminal-justice system.

The Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force — a group of state lawmakers and officials representing police, prisons and mental-health advocates — was first presented with the proposals last month in Hot Springs. The changes focus on limiting prison stays for parole and probation violators while using funds to hire more caseworkers and provide treatment for addicts and the mentally ill. The package doesn’t include new prison facilities.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center predicted the plan could offset costs from building and operating new prison facilities and save the state about $144 million during the next four years.

The justice center, a New York-based policy group, last year was given the task of developing solutions to Arkansas’ skyrocketing prison population, which grew faster than any other state between 2012 and 2014. There were 16,363 inmates housed by the Department of Correction on Tuesday, surpassing its 15,157-person capacity. The backlog of prisoners housed in county jails totaled 1,368 Tuesday.

While the proposals are projected to save the state the cost of building and maintaining a 1,200-bed lockup, they will not eliminate the need for new prisons or more expansive legislation, the justice center’s lead researcher, Andy Barbee, told the task force Tuesday.

The state’s inmate population is expected to increase to more than 20,000 by 2023, according to the center’s report, even if the General Assembly approves the proposed changes. Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley, a nonlegislative member of the task force, urged lawmakers Tuesday to include funding for new prisons along with any criminal-justice legislation.

“Unless we build additional beds, or people suddenly decide to stop committing crimes, these policy recommendations are not going to get us where we need to go,” Kelley said. The Board of Corrections last month approved a plan to ask the Legislature for $39.2 million to expand the North Central Unit in Calico Rock by 576 beds.

The task force voted to approve the recommendations by a voice vote after its co-chairman, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, said that in the interest of time, he would not accept any amendments. Immediately after the meeting, Hutchinson and the other co-chairman, Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, presented the proposals to a meeting of the Association of Arkansas Counties.

Hutchinson said additional changes requested by lawmakers, including a proposal to build more prison facilities, could be taken up at a later meeting. Legislation based on the proposals is being written for the next session of the General Assembly, Hutchinson said, and a preliminary report will be finished before budget hearings start next week. The Legislature’s next session starts in January.

On Tuesday, the justice center presented more specifics and cost estimates for some of the recommendations that were presented at the Hot Springs meeting.

The justice center said its proposal to reduce the workload of caseworkers would require hiring about 100 probation and parole officers at a cost of $41 million over six years. There are approximately 450 such officers in the state, who averaged about 129 cases each last year.

Another $21 million would be spent on community-based treatment programs for drug addicts, and $3 million for a fund to reimburse police departments for training to help officers recognize and respond to people with mental illnesses. Changing Arkansas’ Medicaid program to cover patients whose main treatment is for substance abuse would allow the state to receive federal funding covering up to 85 percent of the costs for treatment programs, according to the justice center’s report.

Changing the state’s Crime Victims Reparations Program to allow victims with criminal convictions to receive compensation from the fund would cost $600,000. Victims still would not be eligible for reparations if their own crimes contributed toward them becoming victims.

The task force also approved a recommendation to build “crisis centers” to house the mentally ill temporarily instead of jail. However, the number of such facilities or the cost was not determined.

The cost to build and operate 1,200 more prison beds was estimated at $210 million over six years, according to the justice center. If the Legislature makes no changes, the group’s report estimated costs associated with the rising prison population would top $751 million by 2023.

Other parts of the plan, included several recommendations affecting offenders released on parole or probation, did not include requests for more funding. Most of the debate Tuesday revolved around a proposal to limit how long parolees and probationers could be sent back to prison for minor violations such as failing a drug test or missing an appointment.

The policy approved by the task force would limit prison returns to 45 days for technical violations that do not involve a crime and 90 days for nonviolent, nonsexual misdemeanors or absconding. New felony charges while on probation or parole still would result in a new arrest and a return to prison if convicted.

Offenders who commit more than three violations would have their paroles or probations revoked and be sent back to prison.

Only one member of the task force, Prosecuting Attorney Ken Casady, could be heard dissenting during the voice vote to approve the plan. Casady spoke against the plan to limit prison returns, noting that parole officers and judges are not required to send violators back to prison.

“Why limit the probation officer’s discretion, the judge’s discretion for those people that really need to go back [to prison]?” Casady said.

According to the justice center report, limiting prison returns would free up to 1,232 prison beds by 2023.

Arkansas’ prison population dropped after 2011, when the General Assembly enacted a similar law that limited prison returns for parole violators and absconders. However, crackdowns began again in 2013 after a Fayetteville teen was killed by an absconder with numerous parole violations.

At the Association of Arkansas Counties meeting Tuesday, Hutchinson called the proposals approved Tuesday the state’s “first attempt at criminal-justice reform based on data.”