Stricter parole policies are driving a sharp increase in the number of inmates in Arkansas prisons.
Legislators are paying close attention to the effect of new state laws enacted earlier this year, which they hope will stabilize growth in the prison population.
The Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force received a report from a consultant who has studied trends in Arkansas prisons over the past several years. Two years ago the rate of growth in the state’s inmate population was seven times the national average.
Changes in parole revocation policies were a driving factor. Authorities and citizens were frustrated by evidence that some offenders who were being paroled out of prison were a threat to public safety. Parole officers had to cope with caseloads that made it difficult for them to closely monitor all the parolees under their supervision.
A Little Rock teenager was murdered by a man who had violated the conditions of his parole eight times. The state Parole Board tightened policies, and the result was a sharp increase in the number of parole revocations. According to the consultant’s report to the legislative task force, in 2012 there were 1,726 parole revocations in Arkansas, and in 2013 there were 4,005.
State prison units and county jails house more than 18,000 inmates. Of those, more than 2,600 are in county jails waiting to be transferred to one of 12 state prison units.
In addition, officers supervise more than 29,000 people on probation and more than 21,500 inmates on parole. Probation is an action imposed by a court in lieu of time in prison. Parole is granted only by the state Parole Board after an inmate has served a portion of their prison sentence.
There is a process under which crime victims can oppose parole being granted to the inmate who victimized them.
The cost of prisons has become a difficult budget issue for the state and the 75 counties in Arkansas.
Last fiscal year, according to legislative budget analysts, the state spent $389 million on corrections. Ten years before, in Fiscal 2004, the amount of state spending on prisons was about $240 million.
In the 2015 regular session the legislature approved Act 895 to address prison overcrowding. Also, the legislature authorized hiring 52 additional parole officers and support staff.
The state Correction Department signed a contract to house more than 200 Arkansas inmates in Bowie County, Texas. The legislature approved funding of more regional jails. Non-profit organizations that operate halfway houses and re-entry programs will receive bonuses if the inmates in their care have a reduced recidivism rate.
In order to better prepare inmates for re-entry into society, they must go through a more thorough treatment for drug and alcohol problems. A new law clears the way for all inmates to apply for Medicaid, which would pay for drug and alcohol abuse programs.
The constant challenge for correction officials and legislators is how to balance conservative budgeting with tough laws that protect the public from dangerous criminals. That often means exploring options for non-violent offenders, such as drug courts and probation, many of which are not available for violent offenders.