Prisons 'busting at the seams'

We’re going to need another prison, Gov. Mike Beebe said on Monday, beginning a new week by not making news. Either a new joint, or an expansion of one of the existing 17 facilities, which are filled to overflowing. I would suppose it would be an additional barracks, or four or five or six, at one or more of the units, since the figure Mr. Beebe mentioned — $6 million — probably would cover no more than site acquisition, environmental impact study and asphalt for a staff parking lot. And a new prison is like a new yacht: buying it is the cheap part; keeping it running is the real expense.

And, since city and county jails are holding about 2,500 prisoners who have either pleaded guilty or been adjudged same in state courts but for whom there is no room in the inn, well, another $8 million to compensate local governments for keeping them on ice.

We’re at $14 million, by the administration’s estimate. Could be high, might be low.

You can’t blame it all on Darrell Dennis even if he heated the issue to the boiling point and beyond. A multiple offender paroled in 2008 after a conviction for aggravated robbery, Dennis ran afoul of the law more than a dozen times, most of them for alleged felonies, several of them involving firearms and one of them, only last May, including kidnapping and murder before he was arrested, possibly for the last time. At no time during Dennis’s five years of frightful, post-release freedom was he hauled in for even a consideration of parole revocation; he just kept moving and so did the system.

An extensive review of that system by the State Police — and the General Assembly, which is still watching — found no criminal wrongdoing on the part of any state official or administrator. Some changes, including personnel, and tougher, stricter parole procedures, inevitably resulted. The inevitable result of those changes is now before us, and the prison system’s spokeswoman, Shea Wilson, could not have described it more eloquently: “We’re busting at the seams.”

Yes, part of the inmate housing shortage owes to the surge of parole absconders returned to custody in the wake of the Dennis case. Under the revised protocol, some violators were snatched up for violations and escorted to the Arkansas Department of Correction, while others possibly noticed the new atmospherics, waived a hearing and took a number. Too, as Community Correction director Sheila Sharp anticipates, the number of errant parolees returned to custody may soon enough level off, with a consequent lessening of pressure on police chiefs and county sheriffs to pick up the slack.

Even before Darrell Dennis demonstrated the porous nature of parole in Arkansas, however, we were shifting back to the politics of get-tough. You’re a state legislator, or a candidate for the General Assembly; or hope to continue as a prosecutor or win a trial judgeship: do you want to crack down on crime, or do you advocate alternatives to incarceration? Throwing away the key is a crowd-pleaser, always, but it’s an expensive proposition.

Ah, the money. The $14 million that Mr. Beebe proposed as a short-term fix could be the fix proposed by a short-termer. With scarcely a year remaining in his tenure and but one budget remaining to be written, and that one to take effect only in his final six months in office, Mr. Beebe will be polishing his irons and working on his drive, leaving his successor and the General Assembly with the business of governance. The legislature this year sliced scores of millions of dollars from the General Fund — a quarter-billion in the coming two fiscal years — with the calculation that Medicaid savings would make them revenue-neutral. But key lawmakers promise there are more reductions to come. In the meantime, both presumptive gubernatorial nominees are campaigning on their own tax cut plans, if still vague. Both candidates, and the 135 members of the General Assembly to sit in 2015, had best hope the short-term fix is sufficient.

It would be an interesting budget biennium even without Darrell Dennis. He stands trial in February, which is when the legislature next sits.

Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.