After introducing new parole enforcement guidelines meant to cut back on repeat violators, Arkansas experienced the highest one-year increase in the inmate population in its history, at 17.7 percent. State prison officials now are considering new strategies for reform reentry programs and house an influx of inmates.
Speaking before a joint Judiciary committee Thursday, State Department of Correction director Ray Hobbs said the influx of parole violators into the system over the last year is only part of the problem.
“The trend that we're seeing is that they're coming in younger, they're staying longer, and they're more violent,” he said.
Forty-nine percent of inmates are classified as violent. And Hobbs said nearly 30 percent of current state inmates will likely be there for life. But for the rest, he said reentry programs are key “to make sure we equip the inmates with anything we can...any kind of skills to give them a fighting chance to be a productive sentence.”
This would significantly help inmates re-adapt and cut back on recidivism, corrections officials claim. Sheila Sharp, director of the department of Community Corrections, which oversees reentry programs, says more funding is needed to increase the number of parole officers in the state.
“We think additional supervision officers are going to make all the difference in the world. We simply don't have enough,” she said.
Sharp says parole officers have an average caseload of 118 parolees, making it hard to keep track of every former inmate reentering society. The state still has more immediate problems dealing with the large numbers of current prisoners, however.
The legislature's approval to appropriate 6 million dollars to the DOC and open 600 new beds in a special session earlier this month was meant to only temporarily alleviate overcrowding. Hobbs said additional space has opened up at facilities in Springdale and Malvern. Pulaski County, which has twice had to shut down its facility to all but the most violent offenders, has opened a state-operated satellite facility.
Prison authorities say they plan to ask the legislature in its next regular session to approve funding for a new 1,000 bed prison, the construction of which is estimated to cost between 75 and 100 million dollars, with annual operating costs of 25 million dollars.