Our View: Tackling Arkansas’s rate of repeat offenders

Let’s preface this opinion with Sir Isaac Newton’s 1687 laws of motion, and in particular the third law which states, “To every action (force applied) there is an equal but opposite reaction (equal force applied in the opposite direction).” Now then, last month the state Board of Corrections’ problem in dealing with a serious overcrowding situation, set free 755 parole-approved inmates as a solution to provide incremental relief. While early releases aren’t anything new, and in fact going on for the last 30 years, the practice is now causing some serious concerns among local law enforcement agencies across the state. This practice, known among state prison officials as a “necessary population management tool” is placing a burden on communities, so says the executive president of the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association, John Montgomery. “What happens is you’re going to be releasing folks that are in there for their fourth, fifth, or sixth time. Those repeat offenders, if they’ve been down that many times, they’re not getting it. They’re not getting the lessons learned,” Montgomery said. Montgomery, along with other law enforcement officials, are saying the state’s Board of Corrections is simply letting these convicted felons out early that should be released. The argument is easily understood by the numbers. Though data is not collected specifically for the number of parolees released through the state early released law, either through a technical violation or by committing a new felony, 45 percent of all parolees released between 2004 and 2014 violated parole terms and were sent back to prison, according to state figures. Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Ronnie Baldwin chimed in by adding, “Someone who’s just a repeat, repeat, repeat offender, they’re already proven themselves not to be worthy of early release.” The point was made by these law enforcement officials that there needs to be more attention given to each individual case rather than blanket-type releases. We all are aware the issue of crowded state prisons has become a burden to county sheriffs, whose already crowded jails regularly house the state’s backlog. We also know that this state’s prison situation has been issue even before Gov. Asa Hutchinson took office over a year ago and was the subject of an in-depth study under former Gov. Mike Beebe. A plan to build a new state prison was shelved under Hutchinson’s administration due to the enormous cost. Early releases, changes in the sentencing guidelines, revamping prison programs and contracting with out-of-state prison facilities have been the alternatives. Building additional facilities is an option that both Montgomery and Baldwin of the Sheriffs’ Association agree should be explored. Although the association has not officially made a recommendation to state lawmakers, the group has discussed building a cost-effective 1,000-bed facility for lower-level offenders. Opponents of such a solution are saying this would only provide short-term relief before new facilities are also filled. We have to agree that building new facilities is a temporary fix at best and must understand that you cannot build yourself out of the problem. Furthermore, the taxpayers of Arkansas are already being burdened with millions upon millions of dollars now to operate a state prison system, not to mention the local taxes that go toward funding county lock-ups. Instead of focusing on this brick-and-mortar train of thought in dealing with this situation, the better avenue to take is finding ways to address the record-breaking crime rate.

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