Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Arkansas's prison population continues to climb

Posted By on Wed, Jun 17, 2015 at 6:13 PM

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Arkansas's prison growth is outpacing the national average, a consultant told the Arkansas Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force today. Under a best-case scenario projection, the state Department of Correction's population will top 20,000 in 2017, according to to Wendy Ware, a consultant with JFA Associates of Colorado. Ware has been analyzing Arkansas's prison growth for 20 years. Here's her draft report .

Here are a few historical ADC population numbers for some perspective:

1977: 2,519*
1987: 4,891*
1997: 9,943*
2007: 13,916*
2012: 14,627
2013: 17,211
2014: 17,850
June 3, 2015: 18,681

(*= fiscal year numbers)

The war on drugs, habitual offender laws and a general, bipartisan "tough on crime" push led to much of that increase, but in 2012, reforms passed by the legislature began to reduce the population. The state's number of prison inmates declined from 2011 to 2012. And then Darrell Dennis came along. When Dennis, a black, serial parole absconder became the prime suspect in the murder of Forrest Abrams, a white teenager, much of the media and many politicians seized on the deficiencies of the state's parole system as an accessory to the murder. 

In response the state Board of Corrections made sweeping changes to its parole rules. Most notably, it made automatic the revocation of parole for a parolee charged — not convicted — of any felony. Arkansas is one of the only, or perhaps the only, states that refers all new felony charges for revocation, said Benny Magness, chair of the Board of Corrections. 

Because of those rule changes, the state's recent rapid growth has been fueled by parole violators. In 2013, in the wake of the changes spurred by the Dennis case, the prison population grew by 17.7 percent, which Ware said made Arkansas the fastest growing prison population for that year — seven times the national average. In 2014, the prison population grew by 3.7 percent, which still puts Arkansas among the fastest growing states in the country, Ware said.

In 2012, ADC took in 1,633 parole violators. In 2013, it took in 3,671.

"I can't stress how substantial [of an increase] that is," Ware told the task force. "In fact, I've never seen anything like it in my career." 

The growth continues. In 2014, ADC took in 4,139 violators. So far this year, it's taken in 815. If that trend continues, more than 5,500 violators will return to ADC this year, Ware said. 

Task force member Sen. Joyce Elliott criticized the policy of revoking parole because of new charges, especially in nonviolent cases.

Sheila Sharp, director of the Department of Community Correction, which oversees the parole system, said there needed to be a "balance."

"I don't ever want us to go back to where we were when we weren't revoking anyone. Public safety was not in good hands. But I totally agree. We're using a one-size-fits-all policy when we're referring everyone charged with a new crime. We know that only about 28 percent of those charged are ever convicted; they're being charged just to get them locked back up again."

Sharp said the Board of Corrections had asked DCC to come up with some reform proposals by July. 

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