Analysis: Gauging success of plan to ease Arkansas prison overcrowding could take years

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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — With a plan to ease a backlog of state inmates in county jails and an effort to end the revolving door of offenders in the state's prison system, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is trying to overhaul a criminal justice system that has bedeviled his predecessors.

It's a plan that he says will offer short term relief to county jails, but gauging its impact on curbing the state's prison growth will take longer.

"I would think it would take a couple years to have any meaningful statistics," Hutchinson told reporters as he unveiled his prisons plan last week. "What you're going to see first is hopefully some pressure relieved from our county jail facilities. ... But I think it's going to take a couple years really to measure whether we're changing behavior."

Hutchinson calls for tapping two reserve funds — $31 million from the Insurance Department and $2.6 million from unclaimed property — to open up nearly 800 new prison beds, hire additional probation and parole officers and expand alternative sentencing programs. The proposal is aimed at addressing one of the last major issues looming over this year's legislative session, the backlog of more than 2,600 state inmates in county jails.

The move comes four years after the Legislature's overhaul of sentencing laws that critics said contributed to the latest overcrowding crisis. Arkansas' inmate population has risen since the state enacted stricter probation and parole policies in 2013 in response to a parolee with a history of absconding who was charged with killing a teenager.

Hutchinson's proposed $5.2 billion budget for the coming year had already included additional funding for Arkansas' prison system — including increased reimbursements for county jails holding state prisoners — but not money for any new space for inmates.

Hutchinson is touting his proposal as more comprehensive than the option first floated by state correction officials: a 1,000-bed, $100 million prison that was finding little to no support among lawmakers in either chamber.

"This plan not only invests in more prison space, but it gives us a hope for changed behavior, more accountability, so we're not having to build repeated 1,000-bed prisons," Hutchinson said.

Aside from contracting with a county jail in Texas to add bed space, Hutchinson's plan calls for building onto existing prisons and partnering with counties around the state on regional facilities to hold inmates. The proposal includes an additional $7.5 million for the state to hire 52 additional parole and probation officers, support staff and substance abuse treatment managers. He's also calling for $5.5 million in funding for "re-entry" centers to offer work training for prisoners who are about to paroled and $2.8 million in grants for alternative sentencing programs for nonviolent offenders.

The other question surrounding Hutchinson's plan is how the state will fund it in the long term. The proposal relies on one-time money to pay for the ongoing needs over the next two years, with Hutchinson calling it part of a plan that will eventually cost $64 million. This is on the heels of a budget proposal Hutchinson's unveiled that already relies heavily on the state's surplus for other ongoing needs, and after the governor successfully pushed for cutting income taxes by $102 million a year.

County officials say they're willing to give the plan some time to judge its impact, especially if it offers some short-term relief.

"It's going to take some time to see how effective (the plan) is, but I'm hopeful this will resolve some of the problem and I think it will," Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay said. "It's not going to be overnight. We all understand that."


Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ademillo

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