LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) -- Prison overcrowding, correction department spending, mental health and poverty. Those issues, among several others, were addressed on Wednesday by a Legislative Task Force investigating problems with the state’s criminal justice system.
The long and short of it: Arkansans are spending a lot of money to put people behind bars that would be just as successful on the outside.
More of those low-level prisoners should instead be on probation. In order for that to happen, the state would have to invest in more probations.
The Council of State Governments Justice Center, or JC, is researching the prison and probation systems in Arkansas.
They give the state advice on how to cut spending in corrections and find ways to keep people from ending up behind bars.
Wednesday was the group's fifth presentation before the Justice Task Force.
"We have parole officers that are trying to do the best they can, but they are simply overloaded, that is an empirical finding here,” said Task Force Member, Senator Joyce Elliott.
According to their research, the number of people entering state prisons increased 70 percent from 2012 - 2015. Over half went to prison for violating their parole.
"If this goes unabated, then the state will have to spend vastly larger amounts than what these efficient, surgical ways of addressing whatever cost,” said Andrew Barbee with the Justice Center.
For every parole officer in Arkansas, there are 159 parolees.
The solution, JC recommends, is to hire more parole officers, reduce the number of cases and assign more parole to more low-level offenders.
"These arrest rates beg the question: is the approach that's being taken the most cost effective approach.”
The short answer is no. Four years of probation costs the state a little more than $3,000 per person and two years of prison costs about $45,000 a person.
Senator Joyce Elliott says that the cookie cutter incarceration approach isn't working for Arkansas.
"There are people who deserve to be locked up, but if we are going to use that as a unilateral way of addressing crime, it is clear we've been wrong."
She and others raised concerns with the JC about how mental health and veterans affairs fit in to the prison reform conversation.
"Mental illness and homelessness are two key areas that I'm hopeful that this initiative will help us with. Because I see those as two things that I do not believe we are properly treating. Because incarcerating anyone who is mentally ill, doesn't really get to the root cause of the problem,” echoed Police Chief Kenton Buckner.
The JC will take recommendations and questions from the Justice Task Force, find those answers, and present them again in July.
The Task Force will host three more meetings before they compile a recommendation and present it to Governor Asa Hutchinson.