By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
“Right now, as you know, if you leave prison, you get $100 and a bus ride, a bus ticket, or something of similar fashion,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday in announcing his prison reform plan. “That is really not going to help reduce repeat offenders from going back in.”
That wasn’t political exaggeration. A hundred dollars is really what a prisoner receives when he walks out of prison, plus a bus ticket if no one is there to give him a ride.
Forty-three percent of inmates who leave prison soon return, which, if you think about it, might be surprisingly low. If a person only knows two worlds – the one that led him to prison, and prison – where is he going to go with nothing but a hundred bucks in his pocket? Back to that first world, and then, often, back to the second.
We can’t afford this, Hutchinson said, and he’s right. There are now 18,000 inmates in Arkansas’ prison system, which is so overcapacity that the state has been forced to house 2,500 inmates in county jails. County officials are screaming because they have no space and therefore no “stick” to use with their own local offenders. Worse, the state does not fully reimburse them for their costs.
One possible solution is a new $100 million prison that would house 1,000 inmates. That still would leave a county jail backup of 1,500 inmates, making it the equivalent of poking an extra hole in a too-small belt and then gorging on a pizza buffet. The state released 10,000 inmates in 2014, Hutchinson said. If 43 percent of them return to prison, the state would have to find that many beds.
Short-term, Hutchinson proposes spending $50 million for enough prison space for 790 inmates, including leasing 288 beds from a county jail in Bowie County, Texas. In round numbers, that $50 million is about $63,000 per bed.
That’s to address the crisis, he said. As for the long-term overcrowding issues, Hutchinson proposes spending about $16 million on initiatives meant to change behavior and keep people out of prison. He wants to spend $7.5 million for additional parole and probation officers, and $2.8 million on alternative sentencing options such as drug courts, which have had some success in keeping people out of the penitentiary.
Finally, he wants to spend $5.5 million to create transitional re-entry centers for 500 inmates who are within six months of their parole eligibility – job training, that kind of thing. For those inmates, which represent a fraction of those let out of prison each year, it would offer a lot more than $100 and a bus ticket.
How to pay for all this? Most initially will come from $31 million from the Arkansas Insurance Department’s reserve fund, and then starting in two years it will have to come from the general revenue budget.
All of this was to be included in one bill to be filed Thursday by Hutchinson’s nephew, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Benton. It will pass, because everything Gov. Hutchinson has proposed has passed or is passing – his tax cut, his private option plan, the requirement that high schools teach computer science. The state’s first Republican governor with a Republican Legislature in 150 years is enjoying quite a honeymoon.
Hutchinson was asked about another long-term solution – changing the state’s sentencing structure. He said his proposals are meant to address a crisis, and that sentencing reforms will involve a larger discussion with a lot of input from the prosecutors.
But it must be discussed. Dina Tyler, who was the spokesperson for the Department of Correction and now speaks for Arkansas Community Correction (parole, probation, etc.), said after the press conference that it’s not true that prisons are full of inmates busted for simple drug possession. These are people who have really messed up. However, many prisoners aren’t hardened criminals, but instead they’re OK people who just made bad choices. It’s time to stick some ankle bracelets on some of them so they can have jobs, get an education, and actually be corrected instead of teaching them how to become real criminals in prison.
They might have a chance to make something of themselves that way, and it would save Arkansas taxpayers at least a hundred bucks and a bus ticket – plus, in the future, maybe $100 million.