LITTLE ROCK – The recidivism rate for Arkansas prison inmates is 46.1 percent, a rate which the head of state prisons called unacceptable.
Prison officials appeared before a joint meeting of legislators to discuss estimates of growth in the state’s inmate population. They also discussed reentry programs to better prepare inmates for productive careers after they are released from prison.
The legislature passed an appropriation during the recent fiscal session for a 498-bed expansion of the North Central Unit in Calico Rock. Some legislators, county sheriffs and law enforcement officers argue that Arkansas needs more maximum security beds.
The number of inmates behind bars is a little more than 15,000, but they represent only a fraction of the total number of people under the jurisdiction of the state Correction Division.
Another 1,371 inmates are in housed in residential centers run by the Division of Community Corrections. They house inmates referred from drug courts, and are licensed to provide alcohol and drug abuse treatment.
The centers also offer education and job training, as well as therapies to help inmates transition to the outside world, such as parenting classes and courses on how to improve relationships.
State inmates also are housed in county jails, because of a lack of space in state prison units. When offenders are convicted, they normally would be transferred to a state unit. However, due to the lack of space there is a permanent backlog of inmates in local jails.
The backlog of state inmates in county jails was a factor in the legislature’s decision to pass an appropriation for an expansion at the Calico Rock unit.
At the end of March, more than 1,500 inmates were being held in county jails. Sheriffs have appeared before legislative hearings to voice concerns about the increasing number of violent and dangerous offenders in their jails.
The director of state prisons told lawmakers that about 55 percent of new inmates are legally classified as violent offenders. Sentences are determined using a grid that compares the seriousness of criminal offenses, on a scale of one through ten. The director said 55 percent of new offenders are in the eight, nine and ten categories.
Also, about 67,000 inmates are on probation or parole, under supervision by officers. About 24,000 of those are on parole and the others are on probation.
Recidivism rates measure the percentage of inmates who return to prison within three years of being released. The director of Arkansas prisons was hesitant to compare the rate in Arkansas with other states because Arkansas uses different standards and definitions, therefore any comparisons would be “apples to watermelons,” he said.
The Board of Correction recently invoked the Emergency Powers Act to grant parole to almost 400 inmates. The decision does not create new eligibility criteria for their release, but it moves up the time period in which they become eligible for early release.
The governor has proclaimed the week of April 26 through April 30 as Reentry Awareness Week, to help focus public attention on ways to better prepare inmates for life outside prison after they are released.