By Spencer Williams
A mix of lawmakers, lawmen, judges and mental-health advocates given the task of looking for ways to tackle the state’s ballooning prison rolls recommended that the state increase funding and manpower for parole services.
Arkansas has more than 51,000 parolees and probationers.
The co-chairman of the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force, state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, said it was clear that in order to relieve prison crowding, state officials have to attack recidivism, and that it is clear Arkansas will need more caseworkers to make that happen.
“If there’s any blame, it rests on the Legislature for not fully funding [Community Correction] where it needs to be,” Hutchinson said. “Does there need to be a reallocation of resources? Or perhaps raising new revenues?” Raising new revenue would “be difficult in this Legislature,” he said.
But just how many parole and probation officers, and how much to pay them, and how the state would pay for them, are questions that will take some time to answer, Hutchinson said.
During Wednesday’s task force meeting, members of the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments presented their findings on the state’s recidivism rates among released offenders. The center’s director, Andy Barbee, stressed that the research found the state’s parole and probation apparatus is overworked and in need of more resources.
The caseload for Arkansas’ parole and probation officers is averaging around 129, more than twice the load in North Carolina, which encountered prison crowding like Arkansas’ six years ago and invested heavily in its parole system to curb recidivism.
With such high caseloads, officers spend most of their time doing paperwork and have little time to work with clients to identify “teachable moments” for those transitioning back into society or help them find opportunities for personal improvement, Barbee said.
“It’s simply too high,” he said of the caseloads.
The head of the Arkansas Community Correction, Sheila Sharp, agreed that her officers are overworked, which can lead to burnout or poor retention.
Too often, she said, officers can do only “the bare minimum” with some clients.
Right now, there are about 452 officers handling parolees and probationers in the state, including the 65 new positions paid for by special funding procured by Gov. Asa Hutchinson last year — funding that runs out in June 2017, the end of the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Sharp said Wednesday that to reduce caseloads to a more manageable level, she would need roughly 150 more officers, which could cost about $10 million a year.
“To [do individualized casework], we need more officers,” Sharp said. “We feel so strongly about this that we have to ask for what we need.”
Consultants and reports have shown that Arkansas has the fastest-growing prison population rate in the country. As of Wednesday, there were 16,367 inmates in state prisons — which have an official capacity of 15,157 — and another 1,126 state prisoners were waiting in county jails for beds to open up in prisons.
The high figures are mainly the result of a series of policy changes aimed at cracking down on noncompliant parolees. The changes followed a highly publicized abduction and murder of an Arkansas teenager by a parole absconder in 2013.
The number of admissions to prisons climbed from 6,168 in fiscal 2012 to 10,462 in fiscal 2015, according to Wednesday’s report, a 70 percent increase and one driven by a doubling of the number of parolees sent back to prison for violations, which went from 2,398 in 2009 to 5,690 in fiscal 2015.
Of the thousands of parolees and probationers sent to prison, nearly a third of the revocations were because of technical violations, ranging from failed drug tests to failure to pay fines or report to their caseworkers.
With more caseworkers, Barbee said, former prisoners will have better supervision, and just as importantly, caseworkers will be able to use positive reinforcement while working with clients instead of merely finding a violation and returning an offender to prison.
Barbee said technical-violation revocations cost the state, at a minimum, $18.4 million a year. Some of that money could be applied toward better programs for offenders, for more staffing or other resources needed in the field for parole and probation officers, he said.
“They’re not angels, let’s be clear about that,” Barbee said. “But [$18.4 million] is a lot of money. … I’m not saying that violators should be ignored, but with $18.4 million, is there a better way to spend that with better outcomes?”
While the task force is responsible for defining the problems facing the state’s prison and parole system and recommending solutions, Sen. Hutchinson said the real decision-making — and funding options — will fall on lawmakers in the next legislative session.
The senator said he thought it is “feasible” to get more funding to pay for 150 more parole and probation officers, but that funding would come at the expense of other ways of reducing recidivism and prison crowding, such as investing more in mental-health crisis centers or extra bed space for “swift and certain” sanctions for parole violators as an alternative to a longer stay in a state prison.
“We can’t do it all,” Hutchinson said. “If we’re talking about nonviolent people, like addicts … you send them to prison, they come out career criminals and far more dangerous to society than if you had dealt with them in the community.”
The task force will meet again with Barbee and others from the Council of State Governments in late July. Hutchinson said the task force could have final recommendations for the governor and other lawmakers as soon as early fall.