Monday, March 09, 2015

TOP STORY >> Jail proposal to have local impact

Leader senior staff writer

Local sheriffs and the Arkansas Association of Sheriffs say Gov. Asa Hutch-inson’s three-pronged plan for managing the state’s prisons and prisoners is “a step in the right direction,” although they would have preferred the addition of a new $100 million, 1,000-bed state prison.

Instead, Hutchinson has proposed a $50-million fix that would include 790 additional jail beds, plus another $14 million to the Department of Community Corrections to hire more probation and parole officers, expand alternative sentencing and create a network of re-entry houses for inmates nearing their release dates.

Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay and Lonoke County Sheriff John Staley both endorse the moves, but express concern that it is to be paid for by one-time money, without guarantee of future funding.

Meanwhile, the enabling legislation, which does not include appropriations, has passed the Senate 33-1, and after two votes, the House sent SB472 to its judiciary committee, where it’s slated for consideration Tuesday.

With a do-pass recommendation, the bill would need only 51 votes in the whole House before going to the governor for his signature.

A lot is “still up in the air,” Holladay said Friday. “The money still needs to be appropriated from the state Insurance Department’s reserve fund.

“We’re beginning to see some positive impact in Pulaski County,” he said, with a reduction in state inmates backlogged—especially in the last three weeks.”

His jail is approved for 1,210 inmates and has frequently been closed to all but violent offenders, but “Our population this morning is 1,117 and it was 1,109 earlier—the lowest we’ve seen in months.”

“I’ve got 42 waiting to go to prison,” said Staley. “It could go to 56.” He said his capacity is150 prisoners. “We’ve got 170 sometimes. How do you let go? We can’t hardly house any misdemeanors.”

“I’ve prayed about this,” Staley said. “We’ve got drug convictions cleaning up trash. He said they can straighten up while supervised and in jail, but then they “go back out and fall back into drugs. There are going to have to have some structure, some transitional houses.”

“The (the governor) introduced his plan, the backlog (of state inmates in county jails) was 2,799. It will take a while for that population to be reduced,” Staley said.

But when you spend more than $60 million to begin addressing the problem—to make programs continue to work, at some point you have to find additional money.”

The hiring of 52 parole and probation officers is a good step,” Holladay said. “They are overburdened with a caseload beyond their capability. The reentry programs will take longer to implement.”

“We’re always going to have a bed for the violent offender,” Holladay said. But he noted that by releasing non-violent offenders to make room for violent offenders, a facility becomes more and more violent—dangerous to guards, staff and other inmates.

“We can’t get in the business of locking everybody up and throwing away the key,” he said. “There has to be a balance.

Not everyone is happy. Outspoken Circuit Judge Wendell Griffin says Hutchin-son’s plan is “trying to reduce mass incarceration by enlarging the capacity to perpetuate it. One does not cure the causes of cancer by building more cemeteries and hiring more funeral directors and grave diggers.”

Hutchinson says that the state has 18,000 people in prison, with another 2,500 backed up in the counties. The state experienced a 17 percent growth rate of inmates over one year. Recidivism is 43 percent. “If we reduce that, we save money,” he said.

The governor would spend about $32 million over the biennium to make room for 790 more prisoners.

That include 288 being sent on contract to the Bowie County, Tex. Jail for $36 a day each, less that what it costs the state DOC to house an inmate.

The governor would open 48 beds at the Pine Bluff Work Center, 178 beds at the Pine Bluff Ester Unit, which doesn’t currently have operating funds, 28 beds at Tucker and 48 beds at the Ouachita River Unit at Malvern and if possible, another 200 beds through contracts with regional jails.

The $16 million he’d send to the Department of Community Corrections includes $7.5 million for 52 additional parole and probation officers and support. The opening of transitional reentry housing could accommodate about 500 pre-release prisoners at about $30.62 a day, about half the cost of prison housing, at a cost of $5.5 million.

Hutchinson said he’s counting on help from the “faith-based community, and from non-profit organizations.

He also calls for $28 million in alternative courts and sentencing.

“This is a significant opportunity to increase public safety by changing behavior and increasing accountability,” he said.