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The number of people imprisoned in Arkansas grew for the second straight year in 2022, despite a decrease in serious crimes over that same period, according to recently released federal data.
The prison population here increased 3.5% from 2021-2022 — the 17th largest jump in the U.S.
And preliminary state data indicate that the number of inmates jumped even higher in 2023.
If similar states are a guide, Arkansas’ incarceration rate in the coming years is expected to climb even higher as a newly enacted “Truth in Sentencing” law goes into effect, lengthening the time many felons must spend in prison before becoming eligible for parole.
Nationally, the incarcerated population increased for the first time in a decade. Most experts attribute the increase to the criminal justice system’s return to normal following the COVID-19 pandemic, when courts were shut down and many inmates were released or diverted from prison.
But policy decisions are also driving the increase, according to Wendy Sawyer, the Prison Policy Initiative’s research director.
“We conclude that these populations are increasing and can be expected to continue to climb in the next few years, not because of changes in crime but because (a) courts have largely recovered from the slowdowns caused by the pandemic and (b) many states have rolled back sensible criminal legal system reforms — or worse, have enacted legislation that will keep more people behind bars longer, despite decades of evidence that such policies don’t enhance public safety,” Sawyer wrote in a briefing on the Bureau of Justice Statistics 2022 prisoners report.
The federal data captures state inmates in state prison and county jails as well as inmates in federal prison, but doesn’t include people in jail on misdemeanor charges or those in pre-trial detention.
In Arkansas, 21 fewer women went to prison in 2022, but that was offset by 603 more male prisoners. In total, 17,625 people were incarcerated on the final day of 2022.
As of Dec. 21, there were 16,499 inmates in state prisons and 1,630 state inmates backed up in county jails, meaning Arkansas will be sure to see an uptick in next year’s federal report.
The 2022 increase in the Natural State was driven primarily by 4,182 newly sentenced inmates, up from 3,407 the prior year.
The state also released about 500 fewer inmates from prison in 2022.
Of those incarcerated, 59% were convicted of violent offenses, 16.9% were found guilty of drug crimes and 12.7% committed property crimes.
Roughly 56% were white; 39% were Black; and 3.5% were Hispanic, federal data shows.
Arkansas’ violent crime rate dropped in 2022, according to the FBI, though its violence rate remained well above the national average.
Additionally, the state’s long-term crime averages remained high.
Roughly 645 violent crimes were reported in Arkansas per 100,000 residents in 2022, down from an historic high of 672 per 100,000 in 2020, the most recent year with reliable data.
The national average is roughly 381 violent crimes per 100,000 Americans.
FBI crime data only captures reported crime and relies on local agencies to report their statistics (about 95% of law enforcement agencies in Arkansas report their data).
It would also take several years of decreasing crime rates to impact the number of people being sent to prison because criminal cases can take more than a year to work through the court system.
What’s to come
In neighboring Tennessee, a truth-in-sentencing law similar to the one that will take effect in Arkansas over the next two years, went into effect in mid-2022.
Experts said the law was a major driver of Tennessee’s nearly 8% increase in incarceration rate in 2022 — the fourth-highest bump in the U.S.
Both Tennessee’s law and the Protect Arkansas Act require those convicted of the most serious offenses to spend more time behind bars without the ability to seek parole.
Increases in Arkansas’ prison population will further strain the system, which is operating at 109% of its rated capacity already. Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders hopes to soon build a new, 3,000-bed prison, but that will take time, potentially years.
The lack of inmate bed space has escalated the feud between the state prison board and Sanders.
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.