A proposed skills-training program for paroled inmates in Pine Bluff would increase the two-year funding available for condemned housing demolition from $180,000 to $1.1 million, according to the mayor.
Developed by Arkansas Community Correction and State Sen. Stephanie Flowers, the program is intended to provide inmates released on parole and considered likely to re-offend with on-the-job demolition and materials salvage training as they work their way down a list of properties scheduled for demolition by the city.
Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth said that the Pine Bluff Housing and Community Re-invigoration Program would be funded by an $830,000 grant from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission over two years.
The Pine Bluff City Council is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to approve the program and accept the grant funding.
“The city currently budgets $90,000 per year for home demolitions and that will not change,” Hollingsworth said. “We will continue to bid out these projects to our local demolition contractors. It will be business as usual.”
Hollingsworth said that the city currently has 600 buildings on the condemned list waiting to be torn down.
“I wish the annual budget for demolition hadn’t been cut in half several years ago from $180,000 to what it is now,” Hollingsworth said. “We can’t keep up with the demolition that needs to be done as it is.”
Hollingsworth said that demolitions would start in the parts of town with the highest crime rates.
“To me, common sense would say let’s go into the hottest [crime] spot in the city and tear down burned-out and condemned structures,” Hollingsworth said.
Hollingsworth said that she and her staff are considering the fairest option for determining which structures would be demolished using the parolee program and which would be torn down using city-hired contractors.
“When you are looking at the condemned structures on the list, you have to look at the landowner,” Hollingsworth said. “Do they fit the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s criteria for income level? If they do, then they are eligible to have their building demolished using the grant money. If they don’t fit that criteria, the house will be demolished by the city and a lien will be placed on the property if we have trouble getting payment from them.”
ACC Assistant Director of Reentry Services Kevin Murphy said that Mulligan Road, a nonprofit agency, would manage the program.
“The parolees will be housed in duplexes located adjacent to the Southeast Arkansas Community Correction Center and supervised by Mulligan staff at all times,” Murphy said.
Flowers said that any concern over public safety because of the program is unwarranted.
“There are already people out walking the streets today who are on parole,” Flowers said. “The difference here is this group will be supervised 24 hours a day.”
Murphy said that each program participant would be carefully screened prior to admission.
“We want people at risk to re-offend to try to divert them from that path,” Murphy said.
Murphy said that it would be a six-month program with a first group of 10 joined three months later by a second group of 10 and so on up to a maximum of 40.
“This staggered admission allows for the existing program participants to mentor the new arrivals,” Murphy said. “When they aren’t out on the job working, they will be in programming blocks that include General Equivalency Degree classes, substance abuse and addiction treatment and life-skills training.”
Flowers said that this approach is a key component in the effort to break parolees out of the cycle of re-offending and returning to prison.
“These people were paroled under the law,” Flowers said. “They shouldn’t have a life sentence if they weren’t given a life sentence. Most of them can’t get a job, have no skills and are disconnected from their families. They have behavioral and mental health issues. What they need is help. They can’t do it by themselves.”
Flowers said that an additional 10 parolees would be able to participate in the job-skills training program through an affiliation with the Jefferson County Drug Court of Circuit Judge Berlin C. Jones.
“Drug Court is designed to help individuals who have been convicted of felonies get on the right path through more intense supervision,” Flowers said. “We have about 63 [people] in Judge Jones’ court who don’t have jobs and many of them don’t have skills. So this new program will be of real benefit to these people.”
A poll of Pine Bluff City Council members found that while the majority were in favor of the plan, several aldermen questioned the brevity of the time period allotted for consideration of the measure.
“What is the rush?” Ward 1 Alderman Thelma Walker said. “Why can’t we wait and vote on it at the next council meeting? That would give the residents more time to have their questions answered.”
Murphy said that there is no reason why a vote on the measure must take place Monday.
“Waiting two weeks for a vote wouldn’t kill us,” Murphy said. “The advantages for us of having this program in Pine Bluff is that we know the town and the housing for the program participants is here. If we had to go somewhere else, we would have to find new housing.”
Murphy said that once the program receives council approval, it would take between 60 and 90 days to have the first work crews at a job site.