Stop Saying We Need New Prison Beds In Arkansas

Jon B. Comstock

I have imagined a conversation where the governor of Arkansas asks, “Why are prison overcrowding and recidivism rates at almost 50 percent ― the two longest-running outcomes of our department of correction ―- and what can we do about it?”

The answer depends on what goal the people of the state have for its criminal justice system. Do we want to wreak the most onerous consequences we can on the defendants, and even their families, to achieve accountability? Or do we want to provide paths whereby they can gain insight into the harm their misbehavior causes to others ― with the goal of returning home after a limited restriction on their liberty to be productive members of our communities?  

If the former, then we can keep doing what we are doing and keep insisting at every opportunity that we “need more beds if we are to keep Arkansans safe.”  

Thoughtful people routinely get input from multiple sources ― not just the insiders presently charged with running the store. Consider that Sam Walton pointed out he spent substantial time in the competitors’ stores to see “what was working.” In the field of corrections, we are the recipients of almost weekly reports that demonstrate longer stays in prison ― which is what drives the need for new beds ― is counterproductive and has catastrophic collateral consequences.  

There are immediate steps we can take in Arkansas that will avoid the 'feel good' solution of 'lock them up and throw away the keys.'

Many diverse national leaders have come together and said it’s no longer acceptable to call ourselves the “land of the free” when we have 5 percent of the world’s population but roughly 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population ― more than Russia, Syria, North Korea or any other totalitarian country.

There are immediate steps we can take in Arkansas that will avoid the “feel good” solution of “lock them up and throw away the keys,” which is fiscally non-sustainable and does not make us safer.

1. Adopt a mantra of “no new prison beds.”It’s not enough to reject recent efforts to build a new $100 million prison. We need to stop the incremental growth that is currently happening in its place at multiple correctional sites in Arkansas at great cost to the taxpayer.

2. Require the department of corrections to develop alternative plans to achieve the no-growth goal. Mandate that cost-savings be calculated to grow our Drug and Veterans Courts and create new Mental Health Courts, all of which are now time-tested successes nationally.  Provide substantial funding for re-entry centers. Hold public forums to discuss the plans throughout the state.

3. With regard to those criminal drug offenses where our legislature has recently enacted lesser criminal punishments than what previously existed, immediately make that action retroactive, as recommended by a just published joint report from the National League of Cities and National Association of Counties: “A Prescription for Action: Local Leadership in Ending the Opioid Crisis.”

4. Our current age of “mass incarceration” came about in large measure by the war on drugs and the tendency of states to lengthen prison sentences. We failed to factor into that equation that a sentence in one county of Arkansas (often the result of the prosecutor involved) and a sentence in another county (with a different prosecutor) can be vastly different. Rather than coming up with a way to level the playing field, we make “parole eligibility” hinge solely on the sentence that was imposed at the trial court level.We could provide more balance by allowing parole eligibility to be determined by Arkansas’ sentencing guidelines. This change alone would likely result in hundreds of inmates being eligible for parole.

5. Rescind the 70 percent and other arbitrary rules and allow inmates to have some control over their exit date by expanding “good time credits.” Incentivize the behavior we want. This would likely as well free up hundreds of beds, as well.

6. Form a task force to identify each of the barriers that have been erected over the years that restrict a person with a felony from a multitude of occupations. See the Council of State Government’s National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction, which lists almost 1,000 in Arkansas alone. Isn’t it time we as a state take a comprehensive and rational revisit of these restrictions?

7. Take steps to reincorporate those with felony records into the body politic by allowing them to regain their right to vote once released from custody rather than waiting out a lengthy probationary or suspended sentences.

Too many state prisoners are being held in our county jails due to prison overcrowding.

Finally, too many state prisoners are being held in our county jails due to prison overcrowding. Many sheriffs have complained. Give them immediate relief by being aggressive in implementing the constitutional requirement that pre-trial detainees not be jailed when they are not a flight risk and only suffer from being poor and unable to post bail.

These are submitted for the governor’s consideration. I am confident multiple public forums would help identify many others. The outcomes we have from criminal justice are the direct result of policy choices we have made. Are we ready to do something different?

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.