ARKANSAS’ PRISONS ARE OVERCROWDED!
What can we do about it?
Crime rates are falling all across America. Even in Arkansas violent crime has dropped by 4% and property crime was down 17% between 2004 and 2014. However, since 2014 Arkansas prison population has increased by 22%, to more than 18,000 inmates and Arkansans on probation or parole, the highest rate of rise in the nation. Around the country states are closing prisons due to the drop in crime while in Arkansas we continues to pack our prisons and county jails at a cost of 512 Million dollars last year, expected to rise to more than $1.2billion within 10-years.
We are a small state with a population of around 3-million and a tight budget that we have continued to balance at a staggering cost. Imagine if we could use our state budget to treat mental illness and substance abuse rather than incarcerate ill and addicted inmates.
Rather than remaining the brunt of the stigma and shame that comes from perusing policies that have obviously failed us, we could be an example of another state that has turned our problem around.
In 2011, lawmakers recognized a problem with simply building more jails and took action, passing Act-570. The law was designed to reduce prison populations by reducing sentences, expanding probation and parole and encouraging reentry programs. So, what happened?
In 2013, a parolee was arrested for murder just days after his release. The Board of Corrections implemented new, stricter guidelines to keep inmates incarcerated longer and Act 570 collapsed.
By reinvigorating Act-570 and making it retroactive we could alleviate prison overcrowding with the stroke of a pen. By expanding alternative sentencing and instituting pre-judicial restorative justice programs we could help heal communities and begin treating many non-violent crimes as the community mental health issues that they are and not as criminal justice problems.
By interdicting petty criminals, addicts and the mentally ill we can begin to offer help, not punishment. We can see our family and neighbors restored through compassion and treatment rather than burdening them with a criminal record that will haunt them for life.
We can end the new “Jim Crow” of felony conviction status. We can smash the prison industrial complex. We can make mass incarceration a thing of the past, a bad memory, a shameful part of our history that we proudly overcome. Arkansas needs prisons. We need safe, well-funded and well-administered prisons. However we don’t need to fill these exceptional prisons with non-violent substance abusers and our mentally ill friends and family. Our prisons should be reserved for our friends and family who pose a danger to all of us, not for those we are mad at.
I see Arkansas as a unique state that traditionally was a beacon of freedom on the frontier. Wedged between the Deep South and Indian Territory, Arkansas was a state where all people were welcome to start anew, unfettered by past mistakes, and build a healthy life. Somewhere around the beginning of the last century things began to change and Arkansas fell into a sad maturity. We began to accept prejudice and fear as a natural state of things. That is not our true heritage.
Let us return to being on the frontier of change, acceptance and envision a new life for all Arkansans.
Robert Kim Combs
Publisher & General Manager
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