Maybe state employees should be paid based on how much they’ll be missed when they miss a single day of work.
In other words, an agency can go a long time without an official director, but it matters a lot when a foster care caseworker is absent even for a day. If that’s so, the caseworker ought to be the one making the big bucks, not the agency director.
I’m not taking credit for this concept. Doyle Webb, now the head of the Republican Party of Arkansas, made that observation when we worked together in Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller’s office in the mid-2000s.
I don’t think he was being completely serious, and I know I’m not. Agency directors make the big decisions that affect a lot of people permanently. Plus, there’s only one of them.
Still, it’s a fact that the government workers held in highest esteem tend to be the front line workers offering a needed daily service. No one questions if police officers, firefighters, teachers and enlisted members of the military earn their keep. No one calls a high school principal a bureaucrat.
With that in mind, let’s talk about the Department of Community Correction. That agency, which administers the state’s parole system, has been in the news a lot lately after a parolee with multiple arrests during his parole was somehow allowed to remain free until he allegedly kidnapped and killed a teenager. The accused killer had been released from the Pulaski County jail just two days before.
Multiple factors have been blamed, including legislation passed in 2011 meant to slow the growth rate in the state’s prison population that the department interpreted as a prescription for leniency. The department’s culture apparently rewarded those who kept people out of jail.
Under intense scrutiny, the department has reversed course and is now locking everybody up. The result has been that county jails, built to house local offenders, are now bursting at the seams with 2,315 state inmates, 300 of whom are parole violators. The State Police report found that overcrowding at the Pulaski County jail was a factor in releasing offenders like the alleged murderer.
The director retired shortly after the statewide daily broke the story about the alleged murderer. Appearing Nov. 8 on AETN’s “Arkansas Week,” the new director, Sheila Sharp, said more changes are needed, none of which will be cheap. The state has about 446 prison beds available that can be opened with $5 million. That’s about $11,200 per bed, and that’s just for the first year. She said more beds are needed after that. The state has budgeted only half what it needs to pay the counties what it owes for housing prisoners and needs another $6 million or $7 million there.
She cited another need: more parole officers. The department is supervising 55,000 offenders on parole or probation (to go along with the 17,000 people the state is incarcerating). Supervising officers have caseloads of 118, which seems like a lot of criminal offenders to be one person’s responsibility.
She said the department will ask legislators during next year’s fiscal session for money for new officers. It would cost $10 million for 161 additional officers, or more than $62,000 each. That’s a lot of money, but she said it costs $1.75 a day to supervise a single offender versus $60 a day to lock them up
The Legislature will have to find that money somewhere, but it should be possible in a state budget of $4.9 billion. Is it worth spending $10 million to hire more front line workers for the state’s parole system? On a day-to-day basis, they’ve clearly been missed.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.