LITTLE ROCK — New policies approved this summer to improve the disciplining and monitoring of parolees accused of new crimes led to a record number of state prisoners backed up in county jails, state prison officials told legislators Friday.
Department of Correction spokeswoman Shea Wilson told the Legislative Council that 2,144 state prisoners were in county jails Friday afternoon waiting for beds to open up in the state prison system.
Prison officials said the department is ready to open 446 new beds when $8 million in funding is available, and said the old department diagnostic unit in Pine Bluff could be refurbished to house 550 inmates at a cost of at least $16 million.
"We have had tremendous growth," said Sheila Sharp, director of the state Department of Community Corrections, attributing the increase to recent policy changes, including putting parole and probation violators behind bars pending revocation hearings.
Sharp said 20 new parole officers are to begin a six-week training class next week. The addition of those officers will help reduce the work load significantly, she said.
Currently each officer works with an average about 118 parolees or probationers, while the recommended number is about 60, she said.
Since July, legislators have been demanding an explanation for how Darrell Dennis, released from prison in 2008, remained on the streets despite repeated felony arrests without having his parole revoked.
Dennis was last released from the Pulaski County jail on May 8 after parole officials decided not to revoke his parole pending a mental evaluation. Less than 48 hours later, 18-year-old Forrest Abrams of Fayetteville was found dead at a Little Rock intersection. On May 22, Dennis was arrested and charged in the slaying. His parole was revoked June 5.
An investigation by the Department of Correction led the state Board of Corrections chairman to conclude that poor decisions, not parole policies, was the reason Dennis remained free.
A internal DCC investigation ordered by Gov. Mike Beebe and a state police investigation have not been completed.
Wilson told lawmakers Friday that with $8 million the department could open 200 beds at the North Central Unit at Calico Rock, 100 beds at the McPherson Unit at Newport, 88 beds at the Ouachita River Unit in Malvern and 58 beds at the Northwest Arkansas Work Release Center in Springdale.
She said the department has put together a plan to refurbish the old diagnostic unit in Pine Bluff into a prison facility. The price tag is $16 million to $18 million, she said.
Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, told prison officials to keep lawmakers apprised of the rising prison population.
"We need to know what’s going on," Rice said. "There has been a lot of change."
Also Friday, the Legislative Council endorsed a proposal to create a 10-member subcommittee — five members each from the House and Senate — so lawmakers can continue to participate in finding a location for building a new state veterans home.
The 22-member Arkansas Veterans Home Task Force, created by the Legislature earlier this year to recommend a future site for the new veterans home, expires Oct. 31.
Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, said Friday a great deal of work still needs to be done and the new subcommittee would allow lawmakers to continue to participate in the process of finding a location and building the facility.