State Rep. Kathy Webb of Little Rock, who'll be Joint Budget co-chair in 2011, talked recently to the Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods about Gov. Mike Beebe's coming corrections reform initiative, supported by a Pew study. Webb is chairing Beebe's task force on the issue.
Prisons are overstuffed. Part of the problem is the steady return (as Webb testified from family experience) of revolving door drug offenders. We can't afford to build more beds or even open all the beds we've built. There are anomalies aplenty in sentencing. Unbelievably, according to Webb, we lack the necessary prison and other personnel to speedily release hundreds of inmates who are eligible to leave prison and who could make room for offenders stacked up in county jails.
Kathy Wells, a former newspaper reporter and community organization stalwart, provides a detailed report on Webb's remarks:
By Kathy Wells
Rep. Kathy Webb yesterday discussed what recommendations are being considered by the Governor's Task Force on Corrections and Sentencing Reform to halt rising prison costs by dealing with criminal offenders in other ways than confinement in a cell, at the monthly meeting of the Coalition of Greater LR Neighborhoods. She is co-chairman of the Task Force.
Webb and Coalition members agreed the fewer persons sent to state prisons, the better. All agreed there was a pattern of learning more criminal behavior, rather than rehabilitation, during a prison sentence. All agreed waiting lists for various treatment programs should be eliminated, if officials are to successfully claim they are offering alternatives to incarceration.
There is a request to build more prisons costing $184 million from the Arkansas Correction Dept., Webb said, which is not being funded in these tight budget conditions.
However, there is a request to add 41 parole officers that is being recommended for adoption, she said.
The Task Force will meet tomorrow to sift through its research, collected with the aid of staff of the Pew Charitable Trust, and to vote on its final recommendations. She said 15 possible recommendations will be presented, accompanied by cost estimates. For more information on the research of the Pew Trust, she said, go to:
www.pewcenteronthestates.org, and go to Public Safety Performance
These remedies will address skyrocketing prison costs, she told Coalition members, which are estimated to cost Arkansas $1.1 billion by 2020, to build another 6,500 prison beds.
Last week, state legislators provided $7 million more to repay jails for holding state prisoners, who cannot be transferred to the state facilities, because they are too crowded. There's 1,900 state convicts in county jails, she noted, awaiting transfer. A Coalition member noted a pattern of increasing numbers being sentenced to prison, each month for the past year, from 50 to 100 a month.
Webb said that her Task Force had found existing sentencing guidelines, which are advisory, were not being used, and more time is given to offenders by Arkansas judges. The lightest Arkansas sentences for non-violent offenders are heavier than those of other states, including Texas and Kansas, border states that traditionally have taken a hard line in crime and punishment, she said.
Many are imprisoned for technical violations of parole conditions, such as failing a drug urine test, Webb said, while Ohio and other states employ a range of other sanctions to penalize these offenses. A return to prison occurs when a new crime is committed.
Webb cited the case of her cousin, a pot-smoker, who has fallen into the revolving-door cycle of repeated prison stays. He fails a drug test, often just before he completes all terms of parole, and meets his debt to society, and immediately is returned to prison.
Few have realized the large numbers in state prisons who are drug-users, not thieves or robbers or rapists, Webb said. These are not the manufacturers or sellers, she said, but users hurting themselves, not others.
For non-violent offenders, probation is used in Arkansas 40 percent less than the national average, she said.
Other states have used the savings from not building new prisons to fund diversion programs, Webb said, rather than returning savings back to a General Revenue Fund. That gives the chance for officials to offer grants to sheriffs and others who seek to innovate punishment for convicted offenders, she said. The Task Force looked a numerous programs in other states, and liked several of them. A day boot camp that sends offenders home at night was one interesting approach, she said. An ankle monitor was applied to those offenders.
Eliminating the backup of those awaiting release in state prisons is another focus, Webb said. The group has learned there are 1,200 state prisoners held six months past their release dates because of a lack of staff to handle the process for those releases, she said. Funding additional staff to clear the backlog would cost less than operating the beds those prisoners occupy, she said.
Today's prison population is the result of years of bills by legislators to add years onto sentences for various offenses, to get tough on crime, Webb said. Nobody is willing to vote no to these proposals, in fear of being bludgeoned with those votes in the next election, she observed.
Arkansas is one of eight states continuing to send more to prison each year, despite reductions in our crime rates, she said. Texas and Kansas are among states sending fewer numbers to prison and they also have shrinking crime rates, Webb said, so there's no easy correlation between cutting crime and locking up more people.
Moreover, the prison population is growing faster than our state's population, she noted. The Task Force will recommend shifting money from prisons to community punishment, Webb said.
Those officials have already begun to use Task Force information, she said, and are retraining parole officers. They are being directed to provide more tools for rehabilitation, and to focus less on catching parolees breaking parole conditions. Changes in the law are needed to provide other tools in this kit, Webb added.
She praised officials of the Correction Dept. and Community Punishment Dept., who sit on the Task Force, for their willingness to pursue such changes in policy and practice. For example, more AA programs are being offered to offenders, she said.
Asked about keeping offenders out of the revolving-door justice system by giving more authority to District Courts to send misdemeanor offenders to more diversion programs, Webb said that was what the Task Force was looking at doing. All agreed this was the start of a criminal career, so more resources here have the potential of keeping down a later demand for prison beds.
"I'm optimistic," said Webb. "Texas did it; so can we."