In today’s unveiling of his $64 million plan for corrections system reform, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the state must do three things to address Arkansas prison overcrowding: provide more jail space, address recidivism and reform its approach to sentencing.
It’s a major proposal, and although the additional money for reentry and sentencing reforms is the smaller chunk — that piece is $14 million out of the total, while the other $50 million goes towards new beds — it sounds like a step in the right direction in addressing some of the chronic inequities in the criminal justice system. As some of us have hoped, it sounds like Hutchinson, a former prosecutor and head of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, has come to recognize the simplistic lock-em-up approach to sentencing long embraced by some within his party is insufficient in itself.
The proximate reason behind the push is the recent overcrowding in Arkansas’s county jails, which must house excess inmates from the overloaded state prison system (“backup inmates,” they’re sometimes called). Since the legislature tightened parole rules in 2013, jails have been packed to the gills with this overflow population; in Pulaski County, that’s meant the regional detention center has had to frequently close its doors to new nonviolent offenders, threatening the basic workings of the jail system. Meanwhile, the state’s parole system is similarly understaffed and overwhelmed.
But the real problem goes much deeper than that, Hutchinson acknowledged today. “We have 18,000 inmates in our state prisons, which represents a 17 percent growth – one of the largest growth rates in our nation in terms of prison population,” he said. And recidivism rates are abysmal: Almost half of prisoners end up back behind bars within a few years.
The governor framed recidivism as a threat to the budget and to public safety.
“In 2014, there were 10,000 inmates released from prison on parole … That increase in caseload has crashed our parole system. It’s resulted in less accountability for parolees. And if you just look at a recidivism rate of 43 percent, which is the average in Arkansas – 4,300 of those inmates return to prison over the next three years, then that would be a cost of $9.5 million. If we reduce that rate of repeat offenders, we save our state money and increase public safety.”
Hutchinson said he’s initially asking for the legislature to invest $32 million over the coming biennium. It would primarily be paid for by $31 million in revenue transferred from a reserve fund at the Arkansas Insurance Department and supplemented with an estimated $2.6 million from unclaimed property held by the state. (The governor said the insurance fund is normally folded back into general revenue as it’s built up; the reserve normally carries a 3 year fund balance, he said, but can be safely reduced to a one year fund balance to address this “urgent” need.)
“My original goals were scaled back a little bit to make sure it was manageable within our budget,” he said.
His plan calls for a total 790 new beds, which the governor said “will come on line very quickly.” Several hundred should be made available by the end of the year, if the package passes the legislature. 288 of those beds will be in Bowie County, Texas, at a cost of $36 per day (significantly less than it costs to house a state prisoner in Arkansas). He listed several other jail units in Arkansas that can be quickly ramped up to provide additional space. Hutchinson said he hopes 200 beds will result from new contracts with regional county centers, “if a county wanted to add to their jail space to house state prisoners … to help with their funding.”
But, Hutchinson said, “you can’t have a solution simply with more bed space. You also have to… change behavior.” He outlined three major new investments in reentry and sentencing.
First, the governor promised more money for the Department of Community Corrections, the state agency which handles parole and probation. He called for “a $16 million investment, that will be $7.5 million over the next biennium for 52 additional parole and probation officers, support staff and substance abuse treatment managers.” DCC has long pleaded for additional parole officers from the legislature.
Second, he called for transition reentry centers to house parolees — that is, residential programs that would include work training for offenders who are six months away from parole eligibility, as recommended by the parole board. “Right now, if you leave prison, you get $100 and a bus ticket,” Hutchinson said. “That is really not going to help repeat offenders from going back in. They need an opportunity … to find their way back into society.” Such centers would be a first for Arkansas. “The cost of a reentry center is $30.62, which is less than half the cost of housing a prisoner in a state institution. It will reduce the Department of Corrections population as they’re moving into reentry facilities. This cost is $5.5 million for 500 parolees being able to be housed in reentry centers.” Hutchinson said that the state should be able to move quickly to establish such reentry centers thanks to its existing contracts.
In another encouraging statement, the governor addressed the state’s prosecutors, who he said should “closely review” their approach. “You make our criminal justice system work,” he said. “We need your help to do this — not only to keep our citizens safe but also ot make sure we have the best chance to change behavior and utilize our tax dollars in the best way possible.”
Mara Leveritt recently wrote a cover story for the Times about excesses in the criminal justice system created by overaggressive prosecutors.
Finally, the governor asked for “$2.8 million in alternative sentencing grants for drug treatment courts, for smart sentencing and alternative sentencing courts for nonviolent offenders.” He said the money “equates to $100,000 per judicial district over the next biennium … a very substantial investment.” There are no plans to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders who are already in the prison system, although he emphasized that the transition reentry centers are intended to provide help to existing inmates.
Sen. David Sanders (R-Little Rock), who took the lead in pressing for the tougher parole standards approved in 2013, said the governor’s plan was a good start to addressing the space shortage. Like most legislators, he agreed that building a new $100 million prison (as the Corrections Department originally requested) wasn’t a good idea.
“First and foremost, it’s a much more economical way to provide beds than with the old, outdated model of sticking a prison somewhere. I like the approach, I like the flexibility,” Sanders said. The senator said he’d be introducing legislation of his own that will create “additional transparency and accountability for individuals who are incarcerated and up for consideration for parole.”
If there’s significant legislative opposition to this plan, it has yet to materialize, although House Democratic leader Eddie Armstrong (correctly) noted afterwards that the prison population “cannot be solved with criminal justice reforms alone. We must continue investing in programs such as Pre-K and workforce training that lower crime by giving Arkansans an opportunity for a better life.”
Dina Tyler of the Department of Corrections and Sheila Sharp of the DCC said the governor’s plan works “hand in glove” with the exhaustive report on recidivism produced last fall, which recommended that Arkansas heavily invest building in a reentry system for offenders. That report was the product of legislation requested by Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock).
Although the plan doesn’t implement everything called for in the report, said Tyler, “you’ve got to start somewhere.” A new assistant director position over reentry programs will be created within the department, she said, and the reentry centers could be “up and running within 90 days” of approval. The department is already working on a potential RFP.
Corrections officials also noted that the private option (or AsaCare, or Medicaid expansion, or whatever you want to call it) should indirectly help to slow the recidivism rate. Kevin Murphy, chief deputy director at the Department of Corrections said increased access to insurance allows more inmates (and former inmates) to get the mental health and substance abuse treatment they need.
“We used to spend about $1.5 million per year, but that’s really a drop in the bucket,” he said. “82 percent of them have drug or alcohol problems.”