Max earlier mentioned a report released today from the Arkansas Department of Community Correction (ACC) on how the state might improve reintegrating prisoners into society. Or, to put it less politely — how the state can address its failure to reintegrate prisoners into society.
The report says the recidivism rate in Arkansas — meaning, the rate at which offenders return to prison within three years of their release — is about 42 percent. That’s a grim figure, though about on par with national statistics. But ACC Director Sheila Sharp told the legislative State Agencies and Judiciary committees that recidivism rates in Arkansas actually may be even worse than that.
“It doesn’t take into account the large number of parolees released this year,” she said. “57 percent of those on parole who were released from prison commit a new crime [in the next three years] … our recidivism rate for the coming years is going to look more like 55, 60 percent.”
Sharp was referring to major changes the legislature made to parole rules in 2013, which tightened rules on parolees in the wake of a high profile murder. The number of people on parole who have been sent back behind bars has shot through the roof, and jails and prisons across Arkansas have been over capacity ever since. Sharp said the parole board has released 9,629 prisoners so far this year.
“If we do nothing, more than half of those — over 5,000 — will return to prison in the next three years,” Sharp said.
Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), along with other Democratic lawmakers, commissioned the report from ACC. Elliott said that the ZIP code in which she lives, 72204, contains the highest density of people touched by the corrections system of any in the state. “I live it every day when I walk out my door,” she said. “One of the things we’re wrestling with is folks who come back to the community, who served their time, and the biggest contribution they make is to add to that [recidivism] statistic.”
Arkansas doesn’t really have a plan for what to do with someone after they’re released from prison other than to wait for them to commit another crime and cycle back into prison again, she continued. The state’s corrections system is good, she said; its reintegration system is nonexistent.
“We need a re-entry system, just as we need an entry system,” Elliott said. “If we are going to save our systems, our families, the treasury of this state … we need a system of re-entry.”
Today’s report outlined how such a system might be constructed. Unsurprisingly, it’s not cheap — but neither is housing prisoners for decades on end.
ACC Assistant Director Kevin Murphy outlined 24 recommendations to the committee. The full report is available from ACC, but here are some highlights:
—Establish re-entry centers across Arkansas; inmates who are six to nine months away from the end of their sentence would be housed at these centers, where they would undergo “intense programming” to prepare them for life on the other side: employment counseling, family counseling, etc. “It’s very similar to what the Federal Bureau of Prisons does,” said Murphy. “Their success rate is very high.” The report calls for 4,000 beds across Arkansas, though Murphy said a goal of 2,500 was more realistic. The investment wouldn’t have to start from scratch: “We do have programs in the state that can convert to this type of program fairly quickly.”
—Focus on employment. “In some areas [of the state], 50 percent of our offenders are unemployed,” said Murphy. Either within ACC or in partnership with the Department of Workforce Services, the state needs a workforce specialist in every area in the state to help people find jobs after their release. The state should also offer a tax credit program to incentivize hiring offenders in the community, he said, acknowledging that it would be controversial to many. And, the state should address another obstacle to finding work: The fact that most offenders have suspended drivers’ licenses and no other state ID.
—Involve communities as much as possible in the reintegration process, including churches and faith-based organizations. “A lot off the things we’ve learned is by doping the wrong thing first,” Murphy acknowledged. “We’ve got to have the communities involved; it’s just too difficult a task for the government to do alone.” Also, the state should establish a mentoring program for offenders, building on successful pilots such as the Pathway to Freedom program.
—Provide transitional housing opportunities, especially focusing on offenders with a moderate to high risk of recidivism. Other states have found success with “self-governing” transitional housing, or models that focus on addiction treatment.
—Establish a case management system within ACC and the Department of Corrections, and address the rampant mental health and substance abuse problems among offenders. “The percentage with mental health issues is increasing every year,” said Murphy. “Communities are looking for alternatives, and often the only alternative is to send them to us, to send them to prison.” The state’s Medicaid expansion can help link offenders and ex-offenders with the health care they need, said the report. (By the way, this is yet another reason why Tea Party talk of undoing Arkansas’s private option Medicaid expansion is lunacy.)
—Give ACC and the Department of Corrections what they need to get the job done. The average caseload of an Arkansas parole officer is 118 parolees, with some officers responsible for as many as 130. The recommended national average is about 60. ACC officials say they’d need funding to hire about 201 additional probation and parole officers to reach that target.