PINE BLUFF — Lawmakers asked state prison officials on Monday to review 2010 prison-reform laws and report back on whether any need to be changed to help curb the rising prison population and improve the parole and probation process.
“Tell us what we did that was wrong that has led us down this path and we’ll try and correct it in the future,” said Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot.
Prison officials agreed to comply with the request, but added that recent changes to parole and probation guidelines should should improve the process.
Four legislative committees met jointly at the Southeastern Arkansas Community Correction Center in Pine Bluff to discuss the recent increase in the state’s prison population, as well as tour the facility.
Prison Director Ray Hobbs told legislators the prison population has risen in the past month. He said one factor is a rising number of parolees being locked up until their court dates because of recent policy changes by the state Board of Corrections. He said more prison beds are needed to accommodate the influx.
Hobbs said the backlog of inmates being held in county jails as of Monday was nearly 1,500, of which about 400 were parolees being held for revocation hearings. Total inmate population within the system was 12,567, nearly 540 over capacity.
“So, there are really no beds available as of today,” Hobbs said.
The prison board approved the new new policies and regulations in July to address concerns over the Department of Community Correction’s handling of a parolee Darrell Dennis, who has been of accused of committing murder while free.
The mandates were approved in an effort to improve the disciplining and monitoring of parolees accused of new crimes or parole violations. They range from improved documentation to prohibiting the release of parolees after their second failure to appear in court violation — down from four — and requiring parolees to be jailed pending a mental health evaluation.
In the past month, more than 800 parolees have been held in jail under the new mandates rather than released pending a hearing, lawmakers were told Monday.
Both Williams and Rep. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith, questioned the rise in the prison population, noting that Act 570 of 2010, a series of prison reforms, was intended to ease overcrowding and slow rising costs.
“We were told … when we passed Act 570 that 75-80 percent of the prisoners are non-violent violent and the plan was to shut down most of our prisons, but (electronic monitoring ankle bracelets) would be put on these nonviolent offenders and sent them home,” Altes said. “Why hasn’t that worked?”
“We were led down a road to believe there would be very little or zero growth because we couldn’t sustain the path we were on,” Williams said.
Sharp said that for the most part, Act 570 has worked well and that there are about 57,000 people on probation or parole across the state.
“There are a lot of nonviolent offenders that are being successful,” she said, adding that the release of the parolee who later was charged with murder, was unrelated to Act 570.
“I think our problem has been limited to mostly the Little Rock area,” she said, adding that it appears some staff within the Little Rock parole and probation office might have been too aggressive in releasing offenders.
“From my perspective … I believe we left too many people out on parole and shouldn’t have,” she said. “We have to do a better job. We just didn’t do a good job of supervision at the Little Rock office in particular … probation and parole.”
Sharp went on to say that a heavy workload and a nearly 50 percent staff turnover rate didn’t help.
“With the board’s new policies and focus we’ve put on stabilizing that office I believe we’re going to see a turnaround,” Sharp said. “With that said, we still believe there are nonviolent offenders that can be and should be returned to the community and we should help with the re-entry efforts to give them an opportunity to stay there.”
Dina Tyler, assistant director of public services, told lawmakers the Legislature enacted the sentencing reforms after a study by the Pew Center’s Public Safety Performance suggested the state’s prison population would rise 7,000 in the next decade if nothing was done.
Even with the reforms, the report said, the population would still rise, but at a much slower rate, she said.
Sharp also said that more information would be available this fall to help lawmakers assess the success of Act 570.
On Sept. 26, officials with Denver-based JFA Institute, which has consulted the state prison system on overcrowding, are to present a report on Act 570, and a separate report is expected by Oct. 1, on the recidivism rate of inmates who have been released under Act 570.