BY STATE SENATOR LARRY TEAGUE –
LITTLE ROCK – Lawmakers and Correction officials signed off on a new set of rules to reduce overcrowding and the number of paroled inmates who get in trouble and return to prison.
One new policy changes the eligibility requirements for the boot camp, an intensive and physically demanding program for first time, non-violent offenders. It lasts 105 days.
Boot camp has space for 100 men and 24 women, but sometimes there are empty slots. Officials are changing current rules so that they can accept second-time offenders. By allowing more people to go through boot camp, it will lower the number of inmates in state prison units.
There are 87 offenses that disqualify an inmate from going through boot camp and Correction officials want to expand the list to include violations of new laws such as human trafficking and using the computer for sex offenses.
Another new policy is an attempt to reduce recidivism rates, which are the rates at which inmates get in trouble and return to prison after getting out. In Arkansas the rate is 41 to 44 percent, according to Correction officials.
Inmates who are within six months of their parole eligibility date could qualify for a new vocational program in Pine Bluff in which they demolish condemned houses. They would live in transitional housing and receive life training as well. The cost of housing about 40 parolees in a transitional setting in Pine Bluff would be $30 a day, much lower than the $65 a day it costs to securely house them in a prison unit. Correction officials said the city of Pine Bluff does not oppose the plan.
One benefit would be to prepare the parolees for a productive life outside prison. Many of them are not familiar with the demands of holding jobs.
Another proposal that legislators and Correction officials discussed would expand the focus of vocational training and life skills classes to parolees in medium and high risk categories. One goal is to improve the job skills of about 2,000 parolees now in transitional facilities.
There are more than 18,000 inmates serving sentences in Arkansas, and as of last week more than 2,400 of them were in county jails because there were no available beds for them in state prison units. The inmates in county jails are filling about a fourth of the available bed space in county lockups.
The state reimburses counties $28 a day per inmate held in county jails. County officials say the actual cost averages $45 a day, and that the number of state inmates in county lockups imposes a growing financial burden on county governments.
Sheriffs and other county officials have been pushing for more financial relief from the state to compensate for the costs of housing state inmates. The question will be a major issue during the 2015 legislative session.
Also, the legislature will consider a proposal by Correction officials to fund a new $100 million prison with 1,000 beds, of which several hundred would be suitable for problem inmates who continuously cause trouble with other inmates.
Last year state parole policies were tightened after news reports of parolees committing numerous offenses, including felonies, but remaining on the streets. More parolees are back in prison for violating the terms of their parole and as a result prison units are filled.