Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s plan to fix sentencing, prisons and parole was on the menu at today’s Pulaski County Bar Association luncheon at the Clinton Presidential Center, with Hutchinson’s laying out a three-pronged approach which he says will at least forestall the need for a new $100 million prison by changing the behavior of parolees in order to help them be more successful in their attempts to re-entering society.
After an obligatory post-session victory lap in which he briefly spoke of his agenda successes during the legislative session and the “drama” surrounding HB 1228 and the last-minute dash for SB 975, Hutchinson spoke of his plan for a “public safety and prison form initiative.”
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Hutchinson started on the topic of prison reform by noting that last fall the Arkansas Department of Correction was recommending the construction of a new, $100 million prison. Seeking to avoid that, Hutchinson said, he went to his corrections appointees and asked for options.
What they came up with, Hutchinson said, was a $50 million expansion of current prison space that would add on to existing facilities and use contract facilities in Bowie Co., Texas, where 678 beds are available.
“It’s a $50 million price tag that will ultimately give us 800 new beds,” he said. But, he added, those beds will inevitably be filled, at which point a request for a $100 million prison will be back on the table.
“I said there’s got to be a better path,” Hutchinson said. “We’ve got to try something different. We’ve got to work to change behavior.”
With that in mind, Hutchinson proposed a three-part solution:
1) Expand current prison space in the short term to alleviate overcrowding.
2) A more effective parole and re-entry program for those coming out of prison, including the construction of a 500-bed, $14 million dollar re-entry center where parolees would gradually rejoin society.
“You’ve always had [prisoners] leave prison, whether it’s after two years, after six years, after twenty years or thirty years, and you treat them the same. That is: you give them $100 and a bus ticket,” Hutchinson said. “What are the odds of you succeeding in society at that moment?”
The re-entry center, he said, would be “a gradual system with accountability,” allowing parolees to stay there there for up to six months. The six month turnover will means the facility will be able to house up to 1,000 parolees per year. While there, Hutchinson said, they will be offered assistance including job training and help with other issues, such as getting a driver’s license.
3) Pledging $2.8 million — $200,000 per judicial district in the state — toward the formation of alternative sentencing courts, including drug treatment courts, veterans courts, mental health courts and youthful offender courts that will take into account the offender’s circumstances. Each judicial district will be able to apply for grants to fund whichever special court they believe is most needed.
The objective of the approach, Hutchinson said, it to incarcerate those who are truly a danger to society and hold parolees accountable for their actions, while working “both on the tail end with the reentry program and with the additional parole officers, and on the front end with the accountability courts, is to change behavior. Will it work? I hope it works. And we’re going to work hard to give it a chance to work. But it’s the best investment we can make to change behavior, to change the course of simply repeat offenders, repeat offenders and repeat offenders.”