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The power struggle between the Sanders administration and the state Board of Corrections may be fun to watch, but it obscures the real issue: Arkansas’ inability to adequately house and protect thousands of incarcerated men and women.
State prisons have been stuffed to the rafters for years, and the lack of room has fed a growing backlog of state prisoners held in county lockups, creating crowding and financial problems for local sheriffs and governments.
As of mid-December, the state system housed nearly 16,500 inmates, about 108% of its 15,022-inmate capacity. County jails contained 1,700 state prisoners.
Shortly before former Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s term ended in 2022, his administration set in motion plans to build a new 1,000-bed penitentiary and a separate 300-bed community corrections facility. But Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders put those plans on hold as she and her new corrections secretary formulated their own strategy.
During the spring legislative session, Sanders pushed the PROTECT Act, a law that restructured the state’s sentencing and parole laws and will inevitably lead to more incarceration and longer prison terms. Sanders also called for setting aside $470 million to build 3,000 new prison beds.
Meanwhile Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri beseeched the Corrections Board to add more than 600 temporary beds by renovating unused buildings at some prisons and reopening closed sections at others.
The prison oversight board acceded to some of Profiri’s requests in October, but balked in November at adding more, citing concerns about public safety because of severe staffing shortages. The average vacancy rate for prison guards systemwide is 40%. Of 2,362 correctional officer positions, 946 are vacant.
The board’s refusal to act on Profiri’s requests provoked blistering public criticism of the board from Sanders, Attorney General Tim Griffin and Profiri.
Sanders accused the board of ignoring the county jail backlog and “playing games that put Arkansans in harm’s way.”
At the same press conference, Profiri said his expansion plans would keep criminals off the streets and asserted that adding the beds would not create any unsafe prisons.
Attorney General Tim Griffin said the Board of Corrections’ opposition to the plan made Arkansas less safe and suggested the Legislature should look at constitutional or statutory changes to the makeup and role of the board. Lawmakers passed two laws this year that take some of the board’s authority away, including making the corrections secretary answerable to the governor — a move board members believe usurps their constitutional authority.
In a November 20 letter to Sanders, board chairman Benny Magness pointed out that Amendment 33 of the Arkansas Constitution “was designed to shield educational, charitable, penal and correctional boards and commissions from political interference” and prohibits the governor and Legislature from reducing the board’s authority.
The board considers Profiri its employee and voted in mid-December to suspend him after again rejecting his requests to add beds at two prisons. The board also sued to block Profiri from implementing his bed-expansion plan after he and Sanders said they would proceed. A judge granted a temporary restraining order to stop the expansion.
The constitutional confrontation between the board and the administration makes for good political theater, but doesn’t resolve the central problem of reducing crowding at both state and county facilities.
Sanders’ incendiary language about “the failed policy of catch and early release of violent offenders from prison for no reason other than lack of prison space” serves only to frighten gullible voters who already think crime is more rampant than it truly is.
Arkansas already has the third-highest number of incarcerated individuals per 100,000 residents in the country, and the lock-em-up-throw-away-the-key attitude of the administration and too many legislators does little to help society or the people behind bars.
Meanwhile, lawmakers twice cut the state’s top income tax rate this year, further reducing a source of revenue that could finance the prisons they want to build or, even better, perhaps fully fund programs that help the incarcerated re-enter society and help others stay out of the system altogether.
What we need now is for adults to negotiate a solution to the constitutional impasse and for reasonable people to find a way to reduce the prison population, not add to it.
Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. This article was published with permission from the Arkansas Advocate. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: [email protected]. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.