This post has been updated.
Arkansas has the fastest growing prison population in the country. In 2015, the state admitted 70 percent more people to prison than it did in 2012. That growth was driven by parole and probation violators, a researcher reminded the Legislative Criminal Justice Task Force today.
Left unmentioned, but always hovering over these discussions, were the sweeping policy changes the state Board of Corrections enacted in 2013 in the wake of the revelations surrounding the parole history of Darrell Dennis, who was convicted of murdering 18-year-old Forrest Abrams.
It was the fifth presentation of Justice Reinvestment in Arkansas, a project of the nonprofit Council of State Governments Justice Center, and the latest reminder of how messed up the state’s prison, parole and probation systems are.
In 2015, there were 18,965 prisoners under Arkansas Department of Correction supervision, 4,243 more than in 2009. Of that number, 4,158 came from parole and probation violators. In 2015, around one third of parole and probation violators were sent to prison for technical violations only. In other words, they were sent to prison despite not having been arrested while under supervision. Those violators in 2015 spent between 12 and 15 months in prison. It costs the ADC $20 million annually to house them.
Today’s presentation followed one by Justice Center in February in which the nonprofit revealed that, within Arkansas’s relatively vague sentencing guidelines, the state sent more than 1,000 people to prison in 2014 from an area on the sentencing grid where prison is not recommended at an annual cost of $7.2 million.
Justice Center research demonstrated that, beginning in 2012, people in Arkansas on probation were rearrested at 18 to 21 percent lower rates within three years than people who were released from prison. In a more direct comparison, considering only those who committed low-level felony drug or property offenses, the research indicated that the recidivism rate for offenders on probation in 2013 was 10 percent better than offenders coming from prison over a two-year period.
Shifting more offenders to probation would save the state substantially. It costs $2.25 per day to supervise someone on probation as compared to $62 per day to house someone in prison.
But Arkansas probation and parole officers average 129 cases per caseworker. Andy Barbee, research manager for Justice Center, said it was hard to identify an appropriate standard considering cases vary in degrees of difficulty. However, he pointed to North Carolina, which passed justice reinvestment legislation in 2011, as a comparison. Caseworkers there handle 60 cases, on average.
One reason caseworkers in Arkansas have such a heavy workload is because the average length of supervision of both probation and parole has increased substantially: from 41 months in 2009 to 50 months in 2015 for probation, and from 29 months in 2009 to 39 months in 2015 for parole. But Barbee said that the data shows that 67 percent of offenders on probation and 76 percent of offenders on parole have their supervision revoked within their first two years on probation or parole, so the state’s supervisory resources should be front loaded.
He said Arkansas was halfway to taking all the necessary steps to reducing recidivism. His colleague, Mack Jenkins, a senior policy advisory with Justice Center and a former longtime chief probation officer in San Diego County, Calif., said the old school mentality in probation and parole was “trail ’em, nail ’em, jail ’em,” but that states need to be smarter about how they address offenders. Among Justice Center’s recommendations were focusing on the highest risk offenders, providing the bulk of services on the front end of offenders’ supervision term and providing quality programs and services.
Jenkins suggested considering probation as a “behavior intervention.” Justice Center calls for considering each interaction as a “teaching moment.” When he was in San Diego, Jenkins said his department asked offenders what sort of incentives would motivate them to abide by the conditions of their supervisions. They said things like, “Shake my hand when I come into the room. Treat me with respect.”
After the presentation, Arkansas Community Correction Director Sheila Sharp defended her department. “Over the last five years, with the mandates that have been given this agency and with the resources we’ve been given, I think our staff has done a hell of a job.”
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock), co-chair of the task force, echoed her remarks and conceded, “If there’s any blame, it rests with the legislature for not fully funding [ACC] to the level it needs to be.”