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story.lead_photo.caption FILE - The Maximum Security Unit in Tucker is shown in this 2009 file photo. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

The number of people sent to Arkansas' prisons for violating their terms of probation or parole fell more than 41 percent in 2017, as a new law went into effect that was aimed at stemming the surge in population.

And, for the first time in at least six years, the number of offenders entering probation was more than those going into prison, corrections officials were told Monday in an annual progress report on the prison population.

But the good news came along with more humbling statistics for a prison system already filled beyond its capacity: The number of state prisoners is expected to grow by 0.9 percent annually over the next decade, adding about 1,869 incarcerated people in one of the nation's most heavily incarcerated states.

The Arkansas Department of Correction is responsible for about 18,000 prisoners -- with about 1,600 housed in county jails -- but that number is expected to grow to 19,947 by 2028, according to a report completed for the department by Denver-based JFA Associates.

The prison system's capacity is 15,212. Not counting other inmates held by the Arkansas State Police, in county jails or at a contracted lockup in Texas, the system housed 15,552 people Monday.

"We continue to do a lot of things, right things to try to lower our population in prison. We'll continue to try to find more," said Benny Magness, the chairman of the Board of Corrections. "If we don't, we're going to have to increase the number of beds at some point."

According to past analyses by JFA Associates, the number of prisoners in Arkansas has grown by an average of 2.6 percent annually over the past 10 years. That growth, however, was interrupted in 2011 by a new law offering leniency toward parole violators and absconders.

The law led to a drop in the prison population that lasted until 2013, when an absconder killed a teenager in Little Rock in a highly publicized case that led officials to crack down on parole violators. The prison population subsequently boomed, as did projections for growth.

At one point, it was estimated that as many as 25,000 people would be incarcerated in Arkansas within the next decade.

The Legislature reacted again, passing Act 423 of 2017. The law was intended to give parolees and probationers more opportunities to correct slip-ups for violations such as a failed drug test or a missed check-in. The law went into effect on Oct. 1, 2017.

Since the law went into effect, a total of 1,932 parolees and probationers have been sanctioned to residential treatment centers run by the Department of Community Correction. In the year before the law went into effect, 1,328 parolees went through the program, a difference of 604. (Also, before Act 423 went into effect, probationers were not eligible for the program).

"A lot of those would have ended up" in the Correction Department, said Kevin Murphy, the director of the Department of Community Correction.

Arkansas' prison population grew by 26 percent over the past decade, even as the number of prisoners nationally fell by 4.5 percent over the same time, according to JFA Associates' report. While crime in Arkansas generally fell over the past decade, the report found that violent crime specifically has risen over the past three years.

Wendy Naro, a vice president for JFA Associates, said Arkansas was getting closer to the national trend of seeing more offenders placed on probation than in prison, based on data from 2017.

But the spike in incarceration that began in 2013 was continuing to linger in the state's overall prison population. "This is the new normal," she said.

Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley said the most recent population projections are "a huge positive for how the criminal justice system is working," and noted that the statistics were getting closer to national averages.

Faced with a growing population and nowhere to put new inmates, prison officials have in recent years raised the possibility of building a new prison, but have received little support from lawmakers.

Short of building a new prison, the Department of Correction has sought $39 million to add 576 beds at the North Central Unit near Calico Rock, though that funding has not been approved by the Legislature. Kelley said she was not optimistic about getting approval for that expansion during the 2019 general session, noting that ongoing staff shortages have forced the department to shutter facilities at two units that together housed more than 400 prisoners. She said the department was working on hiring enough people to reopen the facilities.

"It's hard for me to ask for more beds when I still have 400 beds" unoccupied, she said.

The Department of Correction is also exploring the possibility of contracting with several counties in southeast Arkansas to house as many as 500 inmates in a regional jail facility operated by a private contractor. The plans to build that facility, however, have yet to be solidified by the counties, and some legislators have said they are hesitant to utilize private prisons.

Asked if the state would eventually have to build another prison, members of the Board of Corrections said the latest projections offered some relief, while not ruling out the need in the long term.

"It's going to be a hard call," said the Rev. Tyrone Broomfield, a board member from North Little Rock.

"We don't have a lot of wiggle room," said Magness, the chairman.

"We're showing an increase of 2 percent a year" over the past 10 years, said Earl Buddy Chaddick of Fayetteville. "We're already out of space."

A Section on 11/06/2018

Print Headline: Returnees to Arkansas prisons fall by 41%

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