Arkansas' Department of Corrections will release almost 400 potential parolees during a 90-day period because the prison population exceeds capacity.
The corrections board on Thursday unanimously approved use of the state's Emergency Powers Act and certified a list of 387 male inmates as being eligible for immediate release if approved by the parole board.
"The rate of capacity of the male population of the Arkansas Department of Correction is 13,424," according to Dexter Payne, director of the Division of Correction. "Today's male population is 13,834, and we have exhausted all actions pursuant to state laws, rules and regulations to reduce the population."
"We are at 103.1% percent capacity, and we have exceeded 98% capacity for the past 30 days."
Payne said a list of inmates has been approved who will be eligible for release under the act. The releases apply only to the male prison population.
There will be 387 inmates released, Payne said, all of whom must be approved by the parole board.
It is the second time in the past year the Department of Corrections has used the Emergency Power Act to address prison overcrowding. In August, the agency approved the release of 300 inmates after the prison population reached 13,589 for 30 consecutive days.
Prison overcrowding has been a topic among legislators for several months after county sheriffs from across the state complained about how the backup of state prisoners is overcrowding their jails, making it unsafe for county jail employees.
Citing a 10-year projection of inmate population growth, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in February that he wants to use surplus general revenue to expand a prison -- the North Central Unit in Calico Rock -- by about 498 beds.
Earlier this month legislators approved amending the Division of Correction appropriation to grant $75 million in spending authority for the prison expansion.
Several legislators debated the proposed prison expansion because of the expense and a lack of a potential solution.
Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, opposed the move because she said expanding the Calico Rock facility wasn't a solution to overcrowding.
"First, it's expensive, so this appropriation allows for anywhere between $26 million to $75 million to go towards just the building of this expansion, but that doesn't include ongoing costs of housing an the additional 500 prisoners," Clowney said. "Those ongoing costs will be immense. It will cost around $71 a day to house an inmate in this state. That equals $13 million in additional expenditures every year after this expansion."
Clowney also said the issue could be addressed by taking a serious look at some of the crimes that were putting people in prison. She compared expanding the prison to putting an expensive ice pack on a broken leg.
Rep. Mark Berry, R-Ozark, said he respects Clowney's comments on the need to mitigate some of the challenges with those who are in prison who might not need to be there, but said he also understood the challenges county jails face.
"Our sheriff's departments have an immediate need," Berry said. "We have a brand new county jail in my county, and it's already popping at the seams because they have felons in that facility.
"They need a place to provide some relief for our county jails."