County jails are beginning to fill up in many parts of Arkansas, a logical consequence of the Arkansas Department of Correction reaching its capacity for housing inmates.
State news organizations reported on Oct. 25 that the state prison system had reached a record of 14,343 inmates that week — 106.4 percent of capacity for men and 107.2 percent of capacity for women. At the time another 2,144 prisoners were in county jails waiting for beds to open up in the state prison system.
That’s what happens when you get tough on crime. Start putting those criminals in jail, and sooner or later you run out of space.
Overcrowding in the state prisons is a necessary, but hopefully temporary result of legislative attempts to fix a broken state parole system, which took effect last summer, not long after the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported on the murder of an 18-year-old youth by an 8-time parole absconder.
The new policies require, among other things, that any parolee awaiting a revocation hearing be kept locked up until the hearing, that any parolee who fails to report to his parole officer at least twice be jailed and that any parolee charged with a new violent crime must be kept in custody.
Between July and September 514 people had their parole revoked, according to the Democrat-Gazette. In the entire fiscal year 2013, which ended June 30, the number of revocations was only 433.
But that doesn’t count the number of people who waived a hearing and were sent directly back to prison — about 800 more — or the people awaiting a revocation hearing in county jails.
When the state prisons fill up, it has a ripple effect on county jails because there is nowhere to take a convicted criminal sentenced to time in a state facility.
The Jonesboro Sun reported Thursday that the Craighead County Detention Center was housing 326 inmates as of the previous Monday. That’s short of the 440-bed capacity but 60 more inmates than at the same time a year ago. The inmates included 87 state-sentenced inmates, 32 of whom were awaiting transfer and many of the rest awaiting a hearing.
Sheriff Marty Boyd said he expects this is be a problem for years to come, and that’s just one county, of course.
I found similar reports from several other counties. The Boone County jail on Sunday reported an inmate roster of 87, 13 short of capacity. Baxter County reported an inmate roster of 81, five short of a record. The St. Francis County roster on Monday listed 108, 12 short of capacity. Faulkner County’s jail, which has a capacity of 462, showed 450 inmates on Monday.
The Mississippi County sheriff, Dale Cook, reported to the Quorum Court last month that jail expenses are running high because of an inmate population of 172, including about 40 waiting for state prison space. The average is about 130.
The state pays $28 a day for each inmate housed in a county jail.
The state Department of Correction has additional capacity available. Prison officials told the Arkansas News Bureau recently that 446 beds could be opened immediately at four different facilities if the department had $8 million to operate them. And the old diagnostic unit could be remodeled to house another 550 inmates, but that would cost at least $16 million.
At a legislative hearing in late October state Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, told prison officials to keep them up to date on the prison population issue. "We need to know what’s going on," Rice said. "There has been a lot of change."
Unfortunately, the changes made by the Legislature earlier this year in the parole system didn’t address the additional costs of handling all those parolees who would have to be kept in jail and-or sent back to prison. That’s still a fluid situation, in fact, and the numbers could level off after a while.
One of the prime movers in the parole system issue has been state Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, who sponsored two of the new laws forcing changes in policy. Act 1029 requires the state Parole Board to issue a warrant for the arrest of a parolee who has committed a violent or sexual felony while on parole. Act 485 makes those convicted of sexual offenses and other serious felonies no longer eligible for mandatory parole.
I asked Sanders by e-mail for a reaction to the jail and prison crowding situation, and he indicated that he’s working on the issue.
"We’ll get those beds open [referring to the 446 ready but not funded for operations], but I am working on a longer-term strategy for both DCC [Department of Community Correction] and ADC," he said.
Presumably, the lack of funding could be addressed in next year’s legislative fiscal session, but further changes in parole and prison policies would have to wait for the general session in 2015.
There is no cheap fix short of housing inmates outside, and who wants that in their neighborhood? If you’re going to put them in jail or prison, you’ve got to pay to keep them there.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.