By John Lyon
LITTLE ROCK — Devoting increased resources to the state’s probation and parole system could have a significant impact on prison overcrowding, a researcher told a legislative task force Wednesday.
Andy Barbee, research manager for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which has been studying Arkansas’ growing prison population, told the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force that between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2015, admissions to Arkansas prisons increased by 41 percent. Between 2012 and 2015 the increase was 70 percent, he said.
“By any measure, the current volume coming into the system … represents a tremendous growth rate above recent history,” he said.
In fiscal 2009, parole violators accounted for 32 percent of all Arkansas prison admissions, but in fiscal 2015, parole violators accounted for 54 percent of admissions, Barbee said.
“What is driving growth in your prison system is a direct reflection of what’s taking place in the field in terms of people that are under parole and probation supervision,” he said.
Barbee said that in fiscal 2015, 30 percent of parole violators and 31 percent of probation violators who were admitted to prison had not been arrested for a new crime. Instead, they violated the terms of their parole or probation with activities such as associating with people with criminal records, failing a drug test, failing to report to a parole or probation officer or failing to pay fines, he said.
The cost to the state to imprison technical violators is about $18.4 million per year, Barbee told the task force.
“We’re not suggesting that these people should have been ignored,” he said. “The questions is, with $18.4 million being spent, is there potentially a better way to spend that money to get better public safety outcomes?”
The average probation or parole officer in Arkansas is responsible for 129 cases, Barbee said. He told the task force that North Carolina was in a similar situation in 2010, but it made significant investments in its probation and parole system and now has a ratio of one officer to 60 cases.
With the enactment of Act 570 of 2011, Arkansas took steps to address prison overcrowding by improving its probation and parole system, Barbee said, but he added that “there seems to be a fairly round agreement that 570 wasn’t funded as thoroughly as perhaps it could have been.”
Arkansas Community Correction has been under the charge since 2011 to change the way it does business, but “trying to fundamentally change the way you do things when you’re constantly in a mode of triage, that is a very, very daunting task,” he said. “They’ve been steadfast in it, but we’re here to tell you, they need some help.”
The task force plans to make recommendations in advance of the legislative session that begins in January.