Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday proposed tapping more than $33 million in state reserve funds to ease a backlog of state inmates at county jails by opening new prison space, hiring additional parole officers and expanding alternative sentencing programs.
The Republican governor said the plan would open 790 new beds, including 288 at a county jail Arkansas would contract with in neighboring Texas, for the more than 2,600 state inmates being held in county jails. Correction officials had initially called for a $100 million, 1,000-bed prison to ease the backlog, but the proposal has found little support among lawmakers during the session.
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"This plan not only invests in more prison space, but it gives us a hope for changed behavior, more accountability, so we're not having to build repeated 1,000-bed prisons," Hutchinson said at a news conference at the state Capitol.
Hutchinson is proposing tapping $31 million from the Arkansas Insurance Department's reserve fund and using an additional $2.6 million from the state's unclaimed property fund to pay for the plan.
Aside from the Bowie County, Texas jail, Hutchinson's plan calls for building on to existing prisons and partnering with counties around the state on regional facilities to hold inmates.
The proposal includes an additional $7.5 million for the state to hire 52 additional parole and probation officers, support staff and substance abuse treatment managers. He's also calling for $5.5 million in funding for "re-entry" centers to offer work training for prisoners who are about to paroled and $2.8 million in grants for alternative sentencing programs for nonviolent offenders.
"This is a significant, significant opportunity for the state of Arkansas and a very substantial investment taxpayers will make to increase public safety, but also to change behavior and increase accountability to make sure we're not just simply building more and bigger prisons over the next decade," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson's proposed $5.2 billion budget for the coming year had already included additional funding for the state prison system, but not money for any new space for inmates.
House and Senate leaders said they expected strong support in both chambers for Hutchinson's proposal. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeremy Hutchinson, who is also the governor's nephew, said he planned to introduce legislation this week implementing the plan.
He said he wasn't worried that the governor's plan is initially relying on one-time funds for ongoing needs.
"It's not ideal, but I think the problem is so significant that we don't have much of an option," Hutchinson, R-Benton, said.
Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay, whose jail is housing about 350 state inmates, called Hutchinson's proposal "a good first step."
"It's going to take some time to see how effective (the plan) is, but I'm hopeful this will resolve some of the problem and I think it will," Holladay said. "It's not going to be overnight. We all understand that."
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