PINE BLUFF, Ark. — As Arkansas sees an increase in violent crime that is influencing election campaigns, prison officials in Arkansas face an additional challenge. Its parole and probation officers can't find more than 12,700 convicted criminals who are violating the terms of their release.
"I was surprised that the numbers were that big," said Will Jones, who will soon take on the role of top prosecutor in Pulaski and Perry counties. "That scares you because you know, there's gonna be a number of those that you anticipate may very well re-offend."
Jones won the job in the judicial elections in May after spending years putting people in prison as a deputy prosecutor in places like Jefferson County. He promises the same as he heads up I-530.
"We're going to hold people accountable and that there are consequences for these types of actions," he said.
But when the consequences call for prison time, there is a problem. Correctional facilities and county jails across the state are already full.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has pushed to build a new facility for the northern part of the state, but those 1,000 beds are still a couple of years away. In the meantime, overcrowding forces prison officials into a difficult dilemma.
State law mandates that when prisons reach overcapacity, the parole board has to make emergency early releases, even though releasing inmates during a crime wave may seem dangerous.
In response, the board maintains a list of inmates that could potentially qualify, and a review of those released in the last calendar year appears encouraging.
Cross-referencing names turns up no one back in prison and a significant number never left after the parole board questioned their fitness for release.
Our review then led us to the state's online tool that allows the public to search the list of absconders.
Arkansas defines these people as those who missed at least one appointment with a parole or probation officer, which initiates a violation. The site asks the public for information on their whereabouts.
As of Oct. 27, the list had a total of 12,709 names.
We asked for someone from the Dept. of Corrections to explain if there really are that many outlaws on the loose, but none would sit down with us. But word of this planned report reached lawmakers and the topic came up when the top prison officials presented their budget requests on Thursday.
"What is the department's view on that," asked State Representative David Ray (R-Maumelle). "How concerning is it and is it going in the right direction or the wrong direction?"
"We are constantly working to reengage those offenders who are on active supervision," answered ADC secretary Solomon Graves. "We want to make sure that we remain in contact with those individuals that we don't lose contact with them, and they add to that 12,000, which is unacceptably high."
"To answer your question, sir, we take that number very seriously," replied Jerry Bradshaw, the director of the Division of Community Correction.
The department did share with us details on what goes into that large number and explained to lawmakers their plans to tackle it.
Firstly, the list includes inmates who are years and in some cases decades past when the parole board declared them an absconder.
The agency said that's partially because Arkansas is strict about calling someone out-of-contact an absconder right away and then keeps them there on the list forever until they do.
The list also lumps together parolees and probation violators, which is not always done in other states. Two-thirds of the names are the latter and probation is usually used for less serious crimes.
Graves said his department needs a facility to handle these low-level, technical violators.
"We are currently now finalizing plans to renovate the former White River Juvenile Detention Facility which we purchased last year," he told Rep. Ray.
He said that the facility will likely handle about 700 offenders a year.
But the list also includes absconders convicted of violent offenses including murder, battery, sexual assault, and domestic abuse.
To combat those criminals, Graves pointed to the Intensive Supervision Program that launched earlier this year targeting parolees in and around Little Rock.
"It works by putting 14 additional officers out on out on the street," Graves said. "They're specially trained at engaging in a caseload that is high risk."
Figures from the department said that the program has netted 34 parolees and 24 people on probation and lodged 59 warrant or absconding charges as well as dozens of gun crimes and other felonies.
Those numbers are from the three months of July, August, and September. They have taken some offenders off the street, but it barely dents the sheer size of the overall list.
That thought weighs on the mind of Jones, as he prepares to handle those cases in court in the state's largest urban area.
"I can't tell you how many times a week up to three o'clock in the morning, you think about that, and it takes a little while to get back to sleep," Jones said. "So it's a daunting task to come into that environment with crime so high. And it concerns me for sure."