HOT SPRINGS, Arkansas — Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday said he wants to tap an additional $7.4 million from Arkansas reserve funds to open 200 more prison beds to help ease the backlog of state inmates housed at local jails.
The Republican governor told the Arkansas Sheriffs Association at the group's summer meeting that he will ask lawmakers to approve the funding to open the beds in about 18 months at a Pine Bluff prison facility.
"I'm asking for your patience and your support and to recognize that there's hope around the corner," Hutchinson told the group.
The funding request is in addition to the $33 million plan lawmakers approved earlier this year to address overcrowding by opening new space, hiring additional parole officers and expanding the use of alternative sentencing programs.
Hutchinson said more than 526 new prison beds have opened since he took office in January and the state also plans to open 500 "re-entry" beds for prisoners who are about to be released.
Despite the new beds, county jails are still backed up. Hutchinson said 2,620 state inmates are in county jails, down slightly from a high of 2,840.
Correction officials had initially called for a $100 million, 1,000-bed prison, but that plan failed to win support from Hutchinson or lawmakers.
Hutchinson said efforts to help prisoners adjust to society after being paroled and not re-offend are also important.
"If we can change behavior in that context, it gives us hope that not only are we going to keep our streets safe but it gives us hope also that we're not going to have to continually use taxpayers' dollars to build bigger and larger prisons," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson told reporters he hoped to send a formal request for the funding to a legislative committee next week. He said he didn't expect to seek additional funding for more prison beds from the Legislature during next year's session.
Hutchinson said he's pleased with the drop the state has seen so far in the backlog but that it's too early to judge the overcrowding plan's success.
"I said at the very beginning that there's no guarantee any of this will change behavior, will lead to the results that we desire, but we've got to try this investment and I'm still confident we can make it work," he said.
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