Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has announced a $64 million plan to address overcrowding at the state’s prisons. At a press conference Wednesday, Hutchinson said he would open nearly 800 prison beds, hire new probation and parole officers and create alternative sentencing and reentry programs for some of the state’s roughly 2,500 inmates held in county jails.
The governor described his plan as a mix between an investment in prison space and an effort to reduce the state’s recidivism rate of 43 percent.
"I think with this balanced investment, we have the greatest opportunity to change behavior," he said. "This is a flexible approach that if the counties do not adopt this idea of regional centers, then we move back to increasing and expanding existing prison space. So there’s many options here in a flexible approach."
There are currently over 18,000 inmates in state prisons.
"If we’re able to change behavior and our reentry system starts working then hopefully we’ll be able to reduce the long term investment that will be needed in even more prison facilities down the road."
Hutchinson’s plan for "immediate relief and long term solutions" would be phased in over two years. He said he will ask the legislature to transfer $31 million from a reserve fund at the Insurance Department and $2.6 million in unclaimed property recruitments. After two years, the costs of the plan will be absorbed into the state’s regular budget.
Hutchinson said $50 million would be allotted for 790 beds, including those at existing prisons in the state and 288 at a facility in Bowie County, Texas at the cost of $36 a day. Counties will have the opportunity to establish 20-year contracts with the state to house 200 inmates. Reentry programs, new probation and parole officers, and alternative sentencing programs would cost $14 million dollars over two years.
500 parolees would be placed in transitional reentry centers at $30.62 a day per inmate. The Department of Community Corrections would hire 52 parole officers and other support staff, short of the 200 it initially requested. Hutchinson described his proposed reentry program as the first of its kind in the state’s history.
"Right now as you know, if you leave prison, you get $100.00 and a bus ride," he said. He added that he hopes reentry beds will be available within the next 90 to 120 days, but results of the reentry and sentencing programs might not be fully evident for some time.
"I think it's going to take a couple of years really to measure whether we're changing behavior and if we're not, you're going to see the metric really grow in terms of our prison population."
Wendy Kelley, Chief Deputy Director of the Department of Community Corrections, said she hopes several upcoming legislative bills will be passed to help inmates obtain health insurance and identification which will help the reentry process. According to Kelley, religious programs in prison have had the greatest success at helping inmates make the transition.
"The programs within the department that are most successful in terms of recidivism rates are our religious programs and we can’t mandate those for inmates but the inmates who have taken advantage of those have done really well when they’ve been released."
Last year, the Department of Correction proposed a $100 million plan to build a new prison, which the governor said early in his term he would not support. Kelly said she is satisfied the governor plans to add more prison beds.
"The governor referenced a $50 million plan and that is something we provided to him. So I think it's simply that he wants to phase it in. He wants to make sure we need those extra beds before he allocates money towards that,” she said.
White County Judge Michael Lincoln said he believes his county, which recently built a new 300 bed facility, would be interested in a contract with the state to house inmates.
"The key word is that contractual agreement. Right now, we don’t have a contract with the state to house state prisoners. It’s a gentleman’s agreement, you house our prisoners, we give us $30. we will be wanting that $36 they’re going to pay outside venues," Lincoln said.
According to Lincoln, there are currently 50 to 60 state inmates in White County jails. He said the state owes the county roughly $150,000 for those inmates.
Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, has pushed for a more stringent state parole system in recent years. said he would support the governor’s plan.
“I think first and foremost it’s a much more economical way to provide beds than sort of the old outdated model of sticking a prison somewhere in some county and moving forward with that. I like the approach, I like the flexibility, I like the recognition of looking for options, even some outside the boundaries of our state,”said Sanders.
Hutchinson said he expects lawmakers to introduce bills to fund his plan in upcoming weeks.