Criminal Justice

Arkansas Should Consider Policies Proven to Work—Not New Prisons

By: Pat Nolan and Cara Sullivan

Arkansas’ prison population has grown 17% more in the last year than in any of the past fifteen years and it is expected to keep growing throughout the next five years. The Arkansas General Assembly recently met to discuss and approve over $6 million to fund and address this alarming trend. Out of urgency, the state is now looking to build a $100 million new prison facility, which would require an annual $25 million cost to operate.

Prisons serve an important and necessary role in the criminal justice system. However, they are not always the most effective sanction for every offender. Many low-risk, nonviolent offenders are better supervised within the community through drug courts, electronic monitoring and intensive probation and parole programs. Expensive prison beds should be reserved for violent and serious repeat offenders. For low level offenders community supervision programs give them the opportunity to get back on their feet rather than exposing them to violent career criminals behind bars. Arkansas should consider community-based supervision policies that have been proven to work instead of spending $100 million to build a new prison.

It is possible to achieve both less crime and less incarceration. During the past five years, a majority of states decreased their imprisonment rate, while also decreasing their crime rate. Arkansas should follow their lead.

States like Georgia, Kentucky, Texas and North Carolina have shown that is possible to reduce crime rates while also decreasing imprisonment rates. Such outcomes require a rigorous commitment to strengthening research-based, cost-effective community corrections alternatives.

Arkansas’ Act 570 of 2011, which concentrated prison space on violent criminals, helped reduce prison population, aided the jail blockage and averted hundreds of million dollars in prison construction in Arkansas. However, in May 2013, a parolee committed a violent crime, and in response Arkansas officials cracked down on any kind of alternative placement to prison. This even included low-level, nonviolent offenders, driving up the prison population and jail backlog. The result was predictable. Prisons are bursting at the seams, and most of the growth in the number of inmates is driven by low-level offenders.

If Arkansas doesn’t address this situation now, the number of inmates will continue to increase, recidivism rates will remain high and Arkansas taxpayers will be left paying for a broken system. The challenge for Arkansas policymakers is to apply free market, fiscally responsible policies that are proven to work, rather than retreating to the failed policies of long and costly prison stays that are of limited and declining benefit to public safety. In order to keep our communities safe, rehabilitate offenders and balance state budgets, Arkansas policymakers should focus on community-based supervision policies that are proven to work.

Pat Nolan is the Director of American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform and Cara Sullivan is the Director of the ALEC Justice Performance Project.

In Depth: Criminal Justice

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