New monitoring contract holds promise

The Arkansas News Bureau reported on a planned expansion of electronic monitoring for inmates under the Department of Community Corrections supervision. According to the story, the proposed increase in the use of the technology is intended to reduce prison overcrowding.

Department of Community Corrections spokeswoman, Dina Tyler, said a newly signed contract with 3M Electronic Monitoring should save the state money, nearly eliminate the department’s monitoring responsibilities and result in more parolees being released with electronic ankle bracelets.

“Before, those parole officers who had parolees on electronic monitoring had to keep up with them on the monitor and so they might be a little reluctant to put them on that because they couldn’t keep up with them,” Tyler said. She also clarified that the new contract reduces the monthly cost of using an electronic bracelet by about 36 percent from $6.25 to $4.02.

“I think you will see a more liberal use of it,” Tyler said, adding that currently 137 parolees with electronic monitoring bracelets are under DCC supervision across the state.

In theory, this expansion would permit the release of additional non-violent inmates. Prison officials clarified that those serving 120 days or less for Class C and Class D felony convictions could qualify, if the Legislature amended the state law.

To this point, John Felts, chairman of the state Parole Board, told reporters that the current law — Act 570 of 2011, the state’s sentencing reforms — was full of “hurdles” that preclude its fullest and most effective implementation. He contends that the law in its present state is overly narrow in its criteria for releasing inmates with an electronic monitoring stipulation.

He also noted that increased use of electronic monitoring was part of a larger effort by the state to address innumerable ills identified by a 2010 study by the Pew Center’s Public Safety Performance project, which found that the state’s prison population had doubled in the past 20 years to more than 16,000, and that housing even more inmates could cost the state $1.1 billion over the next decade.

If one were looking for a wake-up call regarding corrections in Arkansas, the Pew Center report was certainly it. It states in frank terms the cost we will incur unless we interdict the current unsustainable path. A primary way to accomplish this is through an honest assessment of our prison population and the real risks to society presented by the inmates.

To be sure, there are many hundreds, if not thousands of people in ADC custody who should never be returned to society. For the rest of the inmate population, we need to do two things: develop better risk assessment tools so that we can make better choices regarding parole and develop better programs and therapies to equip those returning to society with the tools and techniques required to live as free persons in the world.

We also need to develop alternatives to incarceration that are therapeutically-based. Armed with the knowledge that many in our correctional population are non-violent offenders — often there on drug-related charges — a different approach is most likely needed.

More than 30 years ago the French social philosopher, Michel Foucault, posed a simple question about corrections, “What is it about imprisoning a man that teaches him to be free?”

Then as now, those in charge of supervising our prison system need to come up with an answer. Assuming we’re going to release the vast majority of inmates back into society at some point, they are obliged not only to answer, but to have a good one.