Our View:State’s prison, poverty issues a multi-tiered problem

Let’s face it, we’re all more concerned about becoming a victim of crime more than ever, and in Arkansas it has become evident the growing number of criminals is creating some serious problems. For several years Arkansas’ prisons have been packed to the maximum and despite several attempts to thin out the prison population with several changes in the state’s parole system progress has been minimal, if at all. For example, just the other day we’re told Arkansas has the fastest growing prison population in the nation, even though the state’s crime rate has declined in the past 10 years. According to a nonprofit group studying the state’s criminal justice system, the 20 percent growth – from 13,340 inmates in 2004 to 17,340 in 2014 – is in stark contrast to the national average growth of just 0.2 percent. It was just about a year ago state prison officials made a major push to convince then Gov. Mike Beebe and lawmakers to appropriate a whopping $100 million to build, staff and operate a brand new prison to solve the overcrowding problem at existing prisons. Instead, lawmakers have enacted new parole laws, “farmed out” state prisoners to prisons in neighboring states and funded the creation of programs aimed at better preparing inmates for staying out of trouble once released. Additional tax dollars have also been appropriated for the purpose of hiring additional parole officers and staff to deal with inmates granted early releases. With the continued issues with inmate growth we’ve been told the other day the number of state parole cases have increased by nearly 41 percent over the past five years, going from 10,375 cases in 2010 to 14,567 in 2015. The Arkansas Parole Board ended the fiscal year with the highest number of parole application reviews in the agency’s history, according to an annual report. The increase shown in the report illustrates a serious problem facing lawmakers: How to handle the workload on the state’s penal system, including parole supervising agencies. The statistics are shocking to say the lease. The number of convicted felons on parole increased to 24,523 in 2013, thousands more than the 14,770 on parole in 2004. And, there are currently 17,707 more convicts behind bars in the state’s prisons. Oh, and let’s not leave out that there are about 1,100 more felons sitting in our county jails throughout the state waiting for beds to open up in existing prison facilities. Let us also clarify the fact that while Arkansas’ index crime rate has dropped by 15 percent between 2004 and 2014 it’s still the sixth-highest in the nation and crime rates are dropping faster for surrounding states. We are aware of the fact that Gov. Asa Hutchinson and lawmakers have called upon an array of so-called experts to evaluate the situation and propose additional solutions but the root of the problem is simple. It is in absolute fact that the states with the highest crime rates are also those with the highest poverty and lowest-performing education systems. Let’s face it, when there are about 250,000 Arkansans taking full advantage of this state’s government funded subsidy programs, which include everything to food stamps, free health care to free public housing, there are going to be serious problems, as evident in the crime rate and prison issues. And, until there is something seriously done to deal with the state’s poverty problems solutions to these other issues will far and few between.

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