Prison reform problems and promises

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 119 views 

One of the most pressing issues that Gov. Hutchinson must face during his first term in office is how to address our costly prison system. From overcrowding to crime reduction, our newly elected leader has his work cut out for him, but in impressive fashion, has wasted little time crafting a proposal to comprehensively reform our state’s prison, parole and probation programs.

Last Wednesday, Hutchinson unveiled a $64 million plan that would allow the state to avoid building a new $100 million prison by freeing up prison beds through the allowance for creation of regional jail facilities in partnership with counties and through the out-of-state transfer of prisoners. The plan would also provide for an increase in probation officers, the creation of a Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force, increased funding for specialty courts, the creation of an intervention program that serves to reduce recidivism and the utilization of Medicaid to provide medical services to parolees and probationers.

Rather than harp on the irony of further utilization of Medicaid dollars to attend to the needs of our citizens or ask why tax cuts were more important than securing funding to properly address our public safety concerns, I’ll focus my energy on the current proposal at hand.

While the bill is a tremendous step in the right direction, there are some components to it that deserve a second look.

Two provisions in particular are controversial in the sense that they concern the civil rights of inmates.

First, there’s the language that provides police officers and Department of Community Corrections officers with the ability to perform warrantless searches on parolees and probationers. At present, this move is legal due to both groups having forfeited their Fourth Amendment rights as a condition of their paroles.

While the Governor anticipates that this provision will draw criticism, supporters of the measure will most likely argue that any wrongdoing experienced by individuals who have waived their rights is likely to be addressed under the 8th Amendment, which serves to protect against cruel and unusual punishments.

Secondly, there’s the outsourcing of individuals to prisons in other states. Are we not to be concerned for the treatment that these Arkansans would receive across state lines? How can we hold facilities beyond our borders accountable for delivering (at the very least) our minimum standard of treatment for these individuals? A step in this direction is an indicator that we are not truly committed to reforming individuals while they are serving time. Rather, it sends a signal that we are content with them being out of sight and thus out of mind.

Meanwhile, every dollar saved is more at their expense than ours if we expect them to leave prison and re-enter into our society with some sense of normalcy after living in confinement. The governor has given consideration to the latter concern by designating $5.5 million to create transitional re-entry centers. The facilities would serve 500 parolees who are within six months of the parole date at minimal cost and would provide re-entry preparation and work training.

But does such an effort supplement the further separation that some inmates must face from their families and support networks? I would argue that there is no program that can be created and facilitated by the state that can match the impact and guidance of a person’s network of support, so why throw away such a beneficial tool?

Criticisms aside, the proposed reforms are generally a step in the right direction and will be helpful in reducing the burdens our state is currently dealing with in regards to our prison system.

But now that we are walking down this road, it is important that we are thoughtful in our reforms and that includes making sure that we do not outsource our responsibilities or underinvest in programs, such as those oriented toward alternative sentencing and life beyond prison walls.