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Overcrowding of State Prisons Remains an Issue

BY STATE REPRESENTATIVE NATE BELL –

Violent crime and prison overcrowding are issues that will have to be addressed in the next Regular Session of the General Assembly.  During the recent Special Session called by Governor Beebe we voted to increase funding for the Arkansas Department of Corrections by $6 million to fund opening of 600 additional prison beds. Even with this additional capacity all indications are that overcrowding will continue to escalate.

The Committee for State Agencies and Governmental Affairs voted last week to begin an internal study.  This study will not only look at the cost and ways to fund the building of a new prison, but it will also to take a close look at alternatives to decrease the number of Arkansans who are in prisons. Currently over 17,000 Arkansans are incarcerated and taxpayers spend $23,000 per year to house an inmate. The study will also take a closer look at the success rate of alternative programs for early release.

9% of our General Revenue budget is spent to fund our criminal justice system.  That system includes our state police, crime lab, parole system and correctional facilities.

At our most recent State Agencies Committee meeting, members heard a proposal for a program that would provide mentoring and coaching for inmates who are 1 to 2 years away from their release date. The program aims to reduce recidivism and similar programs have had positive results in other states.

Testimony presented in committee indicates that since the early 1990’s incarcerating drug offenders has generated more costs than benefits to taxpayers.  Over the next few months, our committee will be also looking closely at opportunities for reducing incarceration of drug offenders by increased utilization of drug courts in lieu of incarceration.

Several members also expressed strong interest in looking at alternatives to building a new prison. One suggestion is to consider existing vacant public buildings around the state.  A wide variety of ideas are being considered and explored as alternatives to building and funding a new prison facility.

The new study will take a great deal of time, and our committee has decided to meet once a month from now until the end of the year. We hope to have specific proposals and alternatives ready to present before the next legislative session begins in January.

I appreciate the opportunity to represent you in Arkansas state government. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you need assistance with any state agency or department. I’ll do my best to help. My email is nate.bell@arkansashouse.org and my cell phone number is 479-234-2092. Please feel free to call or text.

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