Arkansas Lawmakers Consider Prison Options

Nov 24, 2014

Arkansas lawmakers received a report from the Bureau of Legislative Research that outlined 8 potential options to curb prison overcrowding, including a $231 million new prison bond issue, hiring a private prison firm, and alternatives to drug sentences and re-entry programs.

The Joint State Agencies committee Monday reviewed the report that Senate Chairman Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, said would be the foundation for potential legislation in January. He also said the study was intended to give Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson an “objective look” at the current crisis and possible alternatives.

Currently, more than 2,500 state prisoners are backed up in county jails costing the state money and stressing county budgets. More than 17,000 prisoners are currently housed in state prison facilities. The recommendations included:

  • Construct a 1,000 bed maximum security prison using a 30-year “wrap-around” bond issue estimated to cost $231 million (including principal and interest), excluding annual maintenance and operations expenses. The debt service would be covered by raising car tag decals by $2 annually.
  • Review the successes and failures of Act 570, which altered sentencing guidelines.
  • Mitigate longer sentences utilizing correctional interventions and re-entry programs.
  • Consider using abandoned school buildings across the state rather than new construction to expand re-entry programs.
  • Enlarge and expand the existing drug court program.
  • Consider a private corrections management service provider that purports to have a lower per-inmate daily cost.
  • Expand the Smarter Sentencing program in order to mitigate longer sentences.
  • Consider funding the increase in the Arkansas Community Correction transitional beds program.

Arkansas Department of Corrections director Larry Norris told the panel that he’s open to all of the suggestions in the report, even if he’s not around to implement them. But he warned that a new maximum security prison would eventually have to be built – a process that could take three years to construct.

“Somewhere along the way, it’s going to have to happen,” Norris told the legislative panel.

Williams said he saw no support for the bond issue for a new prison until all other alternative approaches had been vetted.

“At the end of the day, the bad people need to go jail,” Williams said. “If we try these alternatives and we still need a 1,000 bed facility, then we’ll take that up. But until we look at alternatives to our current process, if we build a 1,000 bed facility, guess what we’re going to do? We’re going to fill it up. And then we’re going to want another 1,000 beds and another 1,000 beds.”

With a recidivism rate of 43%, Williams said there is a high number of nonviolent prison parolees who can complete their terms through transitional housing, re-entry programs and with help for drug rehabilitation.

“There’s a large percentage of that (57%) that never need to go to top security prison – they need to be in jail – they need to go to a minimum security facility,” Williams said.

He said he’s been studying the possibility of using abandoned schools or buildings across the state that could be brought up to code with minimal investments as a housing place for the minimum security population. Williams suggested that 300-500 parolees could be housed at 3-5 facilities around the state minimizing the burden currently on the counties.

“We can parole people to these facilities and let them fail or succeed in a very controlled environment. We’re not doing a good job of that,” Williams said. He also said that many of these individuals need drivers licenses, GEDs and job prospects.

“If we’re going to parole these people, we should demand that they have these things and we can do that today.”

Williams also was optimistic and said he plans to pursue a private jail management firm that is currently running a facility in Homer, Louisiana. He contends that the company is spending $28.50 a day per inmate, far below Arkansas’ prison cost at Wrightsville of $58 a day. “Nothing’s off the table at this point,” he said.