LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Hiring additional probation officers, giving businesses a tax credit for employing ex-offenders and expanding training programs are among two dozen steps Arkansas can take to reduce the number of former inmates returning to prison, state officials told lawmakers Tuesday.
The recommendations detailed by the state Department of Community Correction would cost the state at least $16 million a year. They were outlined in a report lawmakers mandated last year to study ways to reduce the number of prisoners who re-offend after they're released.
"Now that you're outside the gate, what happens? That's what this report is designed to help us think about," said Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, who sponsored the legislation requiring the study.
The recommendations add to the price tag lawmakers face as they try to address prison overcrowding next year. Nearly 2,500 of the state's roughly 18,000 inmates are currently housed in county jails statewide.
State prison officials want to build a 1,000-inmate maximum-security prison to ease the overcrowding, but lawmakers are balking at an increase in car tag fees suggested to pay for the $100 million facility.
Tuesday's report calls for the state to hire an additional 201 probation and parole officers, a move officials said would ease the workload they already face. Kevin Murphy, the department's assistant director, said officers currently are each handling about 130 cases.
"I can tell you, the majority of the time they fight fires," Murphy told the panel. Rather than connecting former inmates with services they need, he said, "they're busy with the ones that either they've got to get out of jail or go put in jail."
The report called for expanded programs to train and counsel inmates as they prepare for release, including the establishment of "re-entry centers" for prisoners during their last six months of incarceration. It also called for a statewide mentoring system for released prisoners and increased substance abuse and mental health treatment.
One recommendation that didn't have a price tag attached was a proposed tax credit for businesses that hire offenders. The credit would be based on the classification of the offender, and state Community Correction officials said they didn't have an estimate of how much such a credit would cost the state.
Employers who hire high-risk offenders would be eligible to apply for up a $1,000 tax credit, while employers who hire moderate-risk offenders would be eligible for up to a $750 tax credit yearly.
Community Correction Director Sheila Sharp said the recommendations would guide what her department is seeking from the Legislature next year, and said the proposals' cost could be offset by the savings it will provide by easing overcrowding across the state.
"They're going to have to look at the cost otherwise," Sharp said.
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