Gov. Mike Beebe’s draft budget would increase the Arkansas Department of Correction’s budget by about $12.4 million and the Department of Community Correction’s by about $7 million.
This includes about $7 million that will go to counties, including Faulkner, where county jails are used to hold "overflow" state prison inmates.
"There’s a pent-up demand for state prison beds," Rep. Steve Magie (D-Conway) said. "Those people are now being housed in our local city and county jails, and our jails are being reimbursed about $28 a day for each individual, which is woefully inadequate and our counties are taking a pretty good hit on trying to take care of those people."
Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) and Reps. Douglas House (R-North Little Rock), David Meeks (R-Conway) and Stephen Meeks (R-Greenbrier) all said they agreed with more funding to reimburse county jails.
Faulkner County Sheriff Andy Shock said that the proposed increase in compensation for holding ADC inmates "would help us out a whole lot." Faulkner County is also being compensated for holding 30 inmates sent from the Pulaski County jail because of overcrowding there.
Gov. Beebe’s budget also includes $5 million in "rainy day funds" to expand existing ADC infrastructure to house another 300 inmates.
There’s also more need for prison "beds" in 2014 because of new parole requirements implemented last summer partly in response to a widely publicized Little Rock murder allegedly committed by multiple-felon parolee Darrell Dennis.
David Meeks said that he would support a prison expansion "because we definitely want to make sure public safety is a priority."
Stephen Meeks agreed. "I have no problems with that," he said. "We still have ongoing issues with bed space, so [ADC] is trying to get some money together, but they haven’t had the money they’ve needed to have the staff to make use of those beds, so there’s been a push for that, too, and one of the other issues that’s being looked at is that there’s a lot of the correctional officers that are doing a lot of [uncompensated work] time and I think the department’s slowly catching up on that."
According to Douglas House, an attorney, Arkansas "really needs to expand our prison beds by about 300 a year, and that’s been neglected."
"I think the distinction between ADC and [the Arkansas Department of Community Correction] is fairly artificial," House said. "The most important thing is we have these people off the street that are dangerous, because of course the safety to the public is the primary concern. We haven’t done a good job of anticipating our needs. Arkansas is a state of three million people, and we know that a percentage of that is going to be going through the prison system."
Magie also said that increasing jail space is not the final or best answer to the jail crowding problem.
"The Governor is asking for appropriations for more beds, and there’s the mentality of ‘just lock ‘em up and forget about ‘em,’ but the truth is that we’re locking them up and we’re paying for them and we can’t just continue to do that," Magie said.
Another area where Magie said the state needs to put more resource is in offender mental health and substance abuse treatment and parole and probation supervision.
"Sure, with the worst offenders, violent offenders, where we’re scared of them and what they’re going to do, lock them in and don’t let them out," he said. "But when you look at the people that we send to prison, they tend to repeat. There’s between 40 and 50 percent recidivism, and 51 percent of the people that have been incarcerated were arrested for another crime. A lot of folks that we’re paying for them to sit in prison are folks that, with the right programs and the right incentives and the right treatments, they wouldn’t be in prison."
(Staff writer Joe Lamb can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 505-1277. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)