LITTLE ROCK — To build or not to build?
That’s a question the next governor and General Assembly will face in considering how to address the state’s prison overcrowding problem. State correction officials said last week they will ask next year for between $75 million and $100 million for construction of a new 1,000-bed prison, plus $25 million a year to operate it — amounts that give lawmakers and candidates pause.
“That’s a staggering price,” said Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, who tweeted last Thursday, “Long-term answer can’t continue to be new prisons.”
Gubernatorial candidates Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross have unveiled rival plans to address crime and prison overcrowding. Both want to expand programs that seek to reduce recidivism and ease overcrowding, but both also want to let prosecutors seek tougher sentences for certain crimes, meaning longer prison sentences. Both also have pledged to cut taxes, not raise them.
Hutchinson, a Republican, said Friday in an e-mail to the Arkansas News Bureau, “Adequate prison space is essential for protecting the public and reducing violent crime in Arkansas. My crime reduction plan calls for funding of additional prison space and I reaffirm that commitment today.
“The plan calls for additional resources for parole officers, drug treatment courts and effective re-entry programs. Before I determine the exact amount that is needed for additional prison space, I will review other options for the number of beds needed, the timing of construction and different methods for housing inmates. In other words, this is such a large expenditure of tax dollars that every alternative must be considered.”
Ross, a Democrat, said in an e-mail, “As governor, I’ll consider the proposal put forth by the Board of Corrections. We do have a prisoner backlog problem, and we can’t keep creating these major overcrowding problems at our county jails. At the same time, we have got to have enough prison beds to lock up our violent and repeat offenders, so that our families and neighborhoods are safe.
“As a state, we can not afford to continue building new prisons over and over again. That’s why I prefer any new prison funding must be tied to meaningful and cost-saving reforms for the long term, such as better rehabilitative and re-entry programs and alternative sentencing for some non-violent offenders like I’ve proposed in my ‘Tougher, Smarter’ crime reduction plan.”
In the recently concluded special session, the Legislature and Gov. Mike Beebe approved freeing up $6.3 million a year from the Central Services Fund to fund about 600 prison beds. Correction officials say the money will help, but it alone will not eliminate the backlog of about 2,330 state prisoners being held in county jails because of overcrowding in state prisons.
Senate President Pro Tem-designate Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, said Friday he wants to consider alternatives to building a new prison.
“At this point I would be open to considering all options, hoping that there is a better alternative than just a straight spending of $100 million,” he said.
Asked to name an example, Dismang said, “I know that Louisiana had some extra bed space and there’s been some talk about contracting with them. I believe the same is true also for Texas. Those are suggestions that have been made by my local sheriff in White County and other sheriffs in the state.”
House Speaker-designate Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, said Friday, “I know there will be more discussion over the coming months concerning this issue, so I will hold my decision until later in the year.”
Leding said he understands that “we are going to need at least one more facility.”
“But I think looking ahead, we’ve got to re-evaluate, perhaps, the way we sentence certain criminals, take a hard look at the parole system. But we’ve also got to, I believe, start investing in more education and more economic development to create more opportunities for folks in Arkansas,” he said.
Benny Magness, chairman of the state Board of Corrections, said education is clearly an underlying factor in Arkansas’ prison population.
“Forty-two percent of inmates that come to the Arkansas Department of Correction have an eighth-grade or less education,” he said. “Think of that for a minute: Most people wouldn’t think, in 2014, 42 percent of the inmates that come to us still don’t have a high school education.”
Lack of jobs is another underlying factor, he said, adding that those are things the prison system cannot change.
Magness also said elected officials need to understand that when they lengthen sentences, the prison population increases.
“If you make the sanctions tougher on crime, just remember: That costs money,” he said.