Since the state’s parole system received an overhaul last year, officials with the Arkansas Department of Correction and Department of Community Correction have been looking at ways to deal with a growing number of offenders.
In 2011, the Legislature passed Act 570, a law intended to improve public safety and slow corrections growth. The important distinction to make was that although the prison system would continue to grow, the number of offenders and re-offenders would slow over time, said Department of Community Correction spokeswoman Dina Tyler.
"(Act 570) was never intended to shrink the state prison system. The hope was that in the best-case scenario, perhaps the growth to state prisons would be cut in half over the course of the next decade," Tyler said. "But even if that were to happen and we were to be gifted with the best-case scenario, the state prison system was expected to still grow by about 3,500 or so inmates. Which, translated in simple terms, is three new 1,200-bed institutions."
Last year, the state parole system received an overhaul after Gov. Mike Beebe asked the state police in July 2013 to investigate the circumstances surrounding Darrell Dennis, who was arrested more than two dozen times after being released on parole in 2008 without having his parole revoked, according to a Nov. 4, 2013, Arkansas News Bureau report.
Dennis was last released from the Pulaski County jail on May 8, 2013, and less than two days later, 18-year-old Forrest Abrams of Fayetteville was found shot to death at a Little Rock intersection. On May 22, 2013, Dennis was arrested and charged in the slaying. His parole was revoked on June 5 of that year, according to the report.
The result of the overhaul was a surge in parole violators being sent back to state prison. As of Thursday, the state had 17,455 inmates, with a backup of 2,786 offenders waiting to be incarcerated, according to Shea Wilson, Department of Correction spokeswoman.
The Department of Correction is looking at a number of ways to deal with the backup. A 200-bed facility in Calico Rock is in the process of opening, Wilson said.
The department also will begin renovating its old Diagnostic Unit in Pine Bluff. That facility would provide at least 328 beds within two or more years, Wilson said.
The department also hopes to receive funding to construct a new 1,000-bed prison, according to Wilson.
The Emergency Powers Act gives the Board of Correction the authority to declare a prison overcrowding emergency and to move parole or transfer eligibility dates forward by as many as 90 days for eligible inmates. Even if the EPA is in effect, the inmates still must be granted parole by the Board of Parole. The expanded EPA moves parole transfer eligibility dates forward by as soon as one year. Only Class I and II inmates convicted of nonsexual and nonviolent crimes can be considered for release under the expanded EPA, Wilson stated in an email.
The act has been invoked routinely since it was enacted in 1991, Wilson said.
The Arkansas Sheriffs Association has been in talks with state officials to come up with solutions to the overcrowding issue. County jails have shouldered most of the burden because they have been asked to house an influx of state inmates, said Ronnie Baldwin, executive director of the association.
"The sheriffs’ hands are tied. They can’t do business as normal — they’re having to cite and release people that need to be in the jail," Baldwin said. "They can’t go out and arrest these people for not paying their fines. What are you going to do with them? Where are you going to put them?"
Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck said his and other counties have seen jail overcrowding at an unprecedented level. Nearly half of the inmates at the Sebastian County Adult Detention Center are from the state, he said.
"We’re just wanting to partner with the state of Arkansas to come up with a viable solution, and for the state to take the responsibility of the inmates and to somehow find room to house their prisoners," he said. "This is about public safety."
The key to reducing the number of state inmates is reducing recidivism, Tyler said.
"We have to do a better job at re-entry, and that’s where Community Correction comes in," she said. "If the recidivism rate is lower, it helps our agency and it helps ADC, which in turn then helps the whole state. We are working hard on re-entry."
The state has about half the number of probation and parole officers it needs, each handling far more cases than is easily manageable. More officers, coupled with a network of resources that offenders can tap into after they leave prison — from job training to ensuring they have basic things like clothes and a means of transportation — will go a long way in reducing the number of repeat offenders and the jail overcrowding issue as a whole, Tyler said.
Such measures will take money. The department intends to address the 2015 General Assembly to make known what needs to be done. The state also needs the support of local communities, Tyler said.
"It’s real easy to say, ‘Heck, they broke the law so don’t give them anything,’" she said. "The ultimate goal is to get them to act better and get them to be a contributing member of society. It’s hard to go to work if you can’t get there and you don’t have any clothes."