Despite the effective leniency law designed to keep parolees out of prison for minor violations, Arkansas prison overcrowding is expected to grow in time.
Arkansas’ new Leniency Law went into effect October 1 of last year. This law was made to help keep low-level probation violators (as well as delinquent parolees) from going back to prison. It accomplishes this by refusing to send these offenders to overcrowding prisons. Instead, these offenders are sent to short-term lockups at county jails and treatment programs.
Act 423 – A Bill to Stop Parolee Recidivism
Prison overcrowding has been a problem in Arkansas Prisons for a long time. There are more than 16,000 inmates in the Arkansas prison system, but there is only room for 15,300. This is why lawmakers passed a 55-page version of an act designed to combat this issue: Act 423.
Since the bill was passed, Arkansas recidivism has fallen by 41%. This makes the number of offenders entering probation higher than those sent to prison for the first time in six years.
Overcrowding Is Expected to Grow in Arkansas Prisons
Despite these impressive numbers, the projected growth of inmates over the next decade is still high. The Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) is responsible for 18,000 prisoners, with 1,600 of them in county jails. This number is expected to grow to 19,947 by 2028. The maximum capacity of the Arkansas prison system is 15,212, not including those transferred to Texas or held in county jails.
Since the law took effect, a total of 1,932 parolees and probationers have been sanctioned to residential treatment centers run by the DCC (Department of Community Corrections). Before the law, it was 1,328, a difference of 604.
It was stated that Arkansas is following the national trend of placing more inmates on probation than sending them to prisons. The state is short on building a new prison and has sought $39 million to add 576 beds near Calico Rock, Arkansas. Legislation has yet to approve the funding, and are not expecting it to. This is because staff shortages have forced the department to shutter facilities at two units that housed more than 400 inmates.
Many areas are showing an increase in population and cannot house them. However, ADC is currently exploring the possibility of contracting with several counties in southeast Arkansas to house more than 500 inmates.
Arkansas legislators saw a drop in the prison population due to the first leniency law set in 2011, but the decrease only lasted until 2013. That was the year when an absconder killed a teen in Little Rock in a high-profile case. This led officials to crack down on probation violators, which in turn, caused a subsequent boom in the population.
The Chairman of the Board of Corrections says that they will have to continue to find ways to lower prison overcrowding, or they will have to increase beds at some time. With the current shortage of Correctional Officers, that may be a hard task.
Staff Shortage in Arkansas Prisons: A Major Issue
A Correctional Officer in Arkansas typically makes between $14-$16 an hour, with an annual salary of $32,000. This is close to the minimum wage in many states, making many officers leave to find better jobs in better conditions. In order to fight prison overcrowding and lower recidivism rates, ADC should consider increasing the wage of their current officers and provide better training for the ones that hey do have. This would attract more people to apply and aid in reopening closed facilities.
Additional Benefits for The Arkansas Department of Corrections
Funding more drug and mental health facilities would provide a reduction of overcrowding. Thanks to Act 423, we’re one step closer to that.
In 2017, Governor Hutchinson pledged $6.4 million to fund four crisis centers for the mentally ill. The centers were set to open under provisions of Act 423, the leniency law. These centers were to have the capacity to serve 1,900-2,000 people annually for up to 7 days. The first one opened in March of this year, with the rest fighting for a location. The reason for the struggle is while it’s a good idea, no one wants a center built in their backyard.