By John Moritz
HOT SPRINGS — The backlog of inmates in state prisons can be eased by limiting the amount of time parole and probation violators spend locked up, a policy group hired to propose criminal-justice changes told lawmakers Thursday.
The Council of State Governments Justice Center presented its first set of policy recommendations to a legislative task force focusing on criminal-justice issues. The justice center’s report comes after nearly a year of research and 20 meetings with lawmakers and other stakeholders. Thursday’s meeting of the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force was at the Hot Springs Convention Center.
Arkansas’ prison population skyrocketed faster than any other state in the nation between 2012 and 2014 during a crackdown on parole offenders in response to the 2013 slaying of a Fayetteville teen by a parole absconder. That has contributed to the 68 percent rise in the cost of corrections over the past decade, to $512 million in fiscal 2015, the report found.
Overcrowding in state prisons has led to the housing of some prisoners in county jails; the backup has averaged more than 1,500 inmates at a time in the past year. But some lawmakers have expressed aversion to the possibility of building and maintaining new prison facilities.
Specific recommendations for the number of facilities, beds and new parole officers are expected to be released at a meeting planned for November.
A vote on whether to accept the recommendations presented Thursday was held off until more specifics are released. The General Assembly is to convene in January, and Andy Barbee, the research manager for the justice center, said states working with the justice center’s advice have typically tried to pass overhauls in a single criminal-justice bill.
In 2011, the Legislature passed Act 570, which reduced sentences and allowed more parolees to remain free despite violations of terms of their release. Prison crowding dropped, only to spike again after 2013, when the slaying of Forrest Abrams by a man with numerous parole violations and 10 felonies spotlighted the number of serial offenders being released.
“Two years ago, it was the Legislature saying, ‘Are you kidding me, you’re not putting these guys back in jail?'” said Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, who is not a member of the committee but who attended the meeting Thursday.
The capacity of state prisons is 15,672, but the number of inmates has climbed to around 18,000 this year.
The recommendations in the report released Thursday did not include proposals for how to reduce the number of first-time offenders or overall crime rates. The Council of State Governments Justice Center recommended changes to sentencing guidelines that would make prison the option for only the most violent and serial offenders.
Crimes from repeat offenders could be reduced, according to the report, by opening new treatment facilities and staffing them with workers to help mentally ill and drug-addicted offenders, who make up more than a third of parolees and probationers.
The top contributing factor for the growth in the number of state prisoners has been the amount of time parolees are re-incarcerated for technical violations — such as failing a drug test or failing to pay fines — Barbee said.
“That is without a doubt, without any order of magnitude, the primary driver of [prison] growth in the past few years,” Barbee said.
Among the new policies legislators should pass, according to the report, is a 45-day limit for being held for technical violations. That limit would rise to 90 days for parolees and probationers who are charged with nonviolent and nonsexual misdemeanor offenses or absconding, according to the proposal.
Violators who are charged with a new felony, violent or sex crime would not be subject to the limit.
Those changes alone would reduce the projected future growth of the state’s inmate population by more than 1,800 people by 2023. Without taking action, the number of inmates is projected to reach 21,345 that year, an increase of more than 3,300 from today’s population, according to the report.
Noting that the proposed change would still leave prisons at overcapacity, Board of Correction Chairman Benny Magness stressed to lawmakers that no changes presented to the committee eliminated the need for more prison beds. On Wednesday, Magness’ board approved making a request to the Legislature for $39.2 million to expand the North Central Unit in Calico Rock by 576 beds.
“We don’t have 19,000 beds. We have to add some beds to the system because we don’t have those there,” Magness said.
Barbee said prisoner numbers could be further reduced by making more-effective services available. One of those recommendations included allowing the state’s private-option Medicaid expansion to cover people whose only treatment is for substance abuse, and providing more supervision of parolees and probationers at the start of their terms.
“People that are going to mess up, they do it pretty quickly.” Barbee said. “It’s not common to see someone spending two and three years on supervision, doing everything that’s expected of them … and all of a sudden going sideways.”
The overburdening of parole and probation officers has contributed to higher recidivism rates because of the difficulty in keeping up with the people assigned to them, the report said. The justice center recommended hiring more officers to reduce the current caseload of 129 people per officer.
The report did not say how many officers should be hired. However, it noted that in North Carolina — a state where the justice center previously advised the Legislature there on adopting new policies — officers have an average caseload of 60.
To further reduce recidivism among the highest-risk offenders, the state should open a number of facilities to temporarily house parolees with substance abuse and mental disorders, the report said. Those quasi-medical facilities would be staffed by nurses and other specially trained personnel who would help get offenders counseling, medication and other treatments needed to stay out of trouble.
Barbee said those facilities could be in a number of places, including vacant county-owned buildings and former hospitals.
The cost would range from $400,000 to $3 million annually for each facility depending on the number of beds, he said.
Several Republicans expressed concerns Thursday that placing a limit on jail time for infractions removes the incentive for parolees and probationers to abide by the conditions of their release.
Democrats, who were supportive of less punitive criminal-justice changes, noted that the justice center’s study was commissioned by the Republican leadership of the Legislature and by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
“My optimism is going to be informed by the position the leadership takes in making this a priority, because we have a road map of some very serious things we can do and should do,” said state Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock.
If no action is taken to reduce the backlog of prisoners in county jails, the report said, payments to jails during the next six years will cost the state an estimated $103 million.