BY STATE SENATOR LARRY TEAGUE –
LITTLE ROCK – The governor outlined an ambitious plan to ease prison overcrowding through expansion of existing facilities, construction of regional re-entry centers and strengthening of probation and parole systems.
He broke his plan into three parts: adding prison space, improving the parole and re-entry system and providing alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders.
A major focus will be on reducing the recidivism rate, which is the rate at which inmates return to prison a second or third time after they are released. He noted that last year 10,000 inmates were released from Arkansas prisons, and the recidivism rate averages about 43 percent.
That means 4,300 of the inmates released from Arkansas prisons in 2014 will be back behind bars within three years. It will cost $9.5 million a year to house those inmates. The governor’s plan would add 500 beds in a “re-entry center” for inmates on the verge of parole. Re-entry programs would include job training, drug abuse treatment and anger management.
An official with the state Department of Community Punishment, which operates re-entry programs, said that 92 percent of inmates and parolees need treatment for drug abuse. The department would get an additional 52 parole officers and support staff under the governor’s plan.
Another key element is to expand drug courts throughout the state with $2.8 million in grants, which means more drug offenders would receive alternative sentencing rather than being sent to prison.
The 500 beds in regional re-entry centers are a critical part of the prison reform effort, and represent a new direction for Arkansas correction officials. Education and job training are not the only lessons for inmates.
Part of preparing them for re-entry into society is to improve their life skills so they can improve their relationships with their families and make better choices of friends and acquaintances. The department will start with inmates with moderate to high risks of re-offending because they are in most need of preparation for the outside world.
The state prison system has more than 15,000 inmates in state units and more than 2,600 in county jails. Overcrowding has become a financial burden on county governments because the state reimburses counties at a rate of $28 per inmate per day. County officials say that amount is not enough to cover the costs of housing inmates, and one of the budget issues before legislators this session is their request for greater reimbursements.
In other news the Senate passed legislation to require all public schools and charter schools to offer a high school level course in computer technology, so that students are prepared not only to work on computers but also know how to write computer code.
The measure, House Bill 1183, is part of the governor’s legislative agenda. It creates a task force charged with ensuring that computer courses are up to date.
The Senate gave final passage to HB 1044, which requires elementary schools to teach cursive by the end of third grade. It goes to the governor.
The Senate passed SB 265 to authorize the University of Arkansas system to establish an Eversity, which would be a totally online institution. The bill sponsor noted that currently, an estimated 14,000 Arkansas residents take online classes from private colleges.