Representatives of the Arkansas Sheriffs Association, including Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck, met with Gov. Mike Beebe and other state officials to discuss ways to tackle the state’s jail overcrowding problem.
On March 21, Hollenbeck, along with Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay and Sheriffs Association Executive Director Ronnie Baldwin went to the Governor’s Office in Little Rock to speak with Beebe and members of his staff, accompanied by Sheila Sharp, Arkansas Department of Community Correction director, and Benny Magness, Arkansas Board of Corrections chairman.
The sheriffs outlined their concerns about jail overcrowding at the county level, and shared suggestions on how to go about fixing the problem at the state level, Hollenbeck said.
Jail overcrowding became a magnified problem after the state’s parole system was overhauled last year as a direct result of the May 2013 shooting death of 18-year-old Forrest Abrams of Fayetteville. Darrell Dennis, 47, was arrested in connection with the shooting after he had been released on parole, according to an Arkansas News Bureau report.
The result of the overhaul was a surge in parole violators being sent back to state prison. The state has more than 17,000 inmates, with about 2,700 waiting to be incarcerated, Department of Correction spokeswoman Shea Wilson said in a March 23 Times Record report.
The strain has been especially hard on many county jails, where a number of state inmates have been sent because of a lack of space at state facilities. About half of the inmates at the Sebastian County Adult Detention Center at any given time are from the state, Hollenbeck said.
The key to finding a solution to overcrowding will be for the state to take responsibility and think outside the box, Hollenbeck said Thursday.
"If the sheriffs of Arkansas need to give suggestions, we certainly will," Hollenbeck said. "But I’m not the director of the Arkansas Department of Correction, or the director of Community Correction — I’m the sheriff of Sebastian County. I can run my jail, but I don’t mean to get into their world. But, by gosh, I’ll be more than happy than to give them suggestions."
Hollenbeck, Beebe and the other officials discussed a number of options, including outsourcing prisoners to facilities in other states.
"There are prisons in Texas and Louisiana that have plenty of room," Hollenbeck said. "We could outsource at least the parole violators where it will free up prison beds to get these people out of our jails."
Another idea would be instead of violating a parolee automatically, the state possibly could enroll the parolee in some type of work program, or split his or her sentence between jail time and community service, Hollenbeck said.
Whatever the outcome of the meeting, Hollenbeck said he hopes to see a concrete idea come to fruition in the near future.
"What I personally requested was that they develop some sort of written plan of action that is going to relieve some of the overcrowding," he said. "The biggest thing was that we wanted them to acknowledge was that this is their problem and that they need to resolve it."
Matt DeCample, spokesman for Gov. Beebe, said although nothing definitive came out of the meeting, it opened a discussion that will continue until a solution is put into place.
"(Gov. Beebe) completely understands the situation that the counties are in now, and of course he’s taken what steps he’s been able to try to help and make sure they’re getting paid back as much as possible for the inmates that they’re holding," DeCample said. "We had a sudden influx that led to this overcrowding, and we need to find a way to alleviate it."
Although the Legislature this year did not appropriate as much money as the governor requested to alleviate jail overcrowding, DeCample said, it did boost prison funding by $3.1 million and increase reimbursement to county jails for housing state inmates by $7 million, according to a March 11 Arkansas News Bureau report.
Beebe seemed receptive to the ideas brought forth during the meeting, and was especially concerned that among the many problems presented by overcrowded jails is the increased risk to the safety of the deputies assigned to watch over inmates, Hollenbeck said.
"He gave some directives to some of his staff to start researching some of the suggestions that we developed," Hollenbeck said. "I’m hoping that they’re going to be able to make some of these things happen."