Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde sounded the alarm on the state’s prison overcrowding issues on Wednesday (Aug. 31) during a meeting with legislators and stakeholders. Joining with the Arkansas Sheriffs Association and Association of Arkansas Counties, Hyde and supporters urged lawmakers to spend some of the state’s $1.6 billion surplus on a new prison.
A letter penned to lawmakers is asking them to think about the public’s safety when they return to the Arkansas Capitol next year for the 2023 Arkansas Legislative Session. They said releasing violent convicted felons due to prison overcrowding is jeopardizing the public’s safety and this is simply unacceptable.
“One of the first questions that a prospect asks that comes to our county and city…how big is your jail and what’s the population,” said Hyde. “Public safety is on the forefront of everyone’s mind who is judging us on whether or not they want to invest in us, or they want to pass us by.”
“Pulaski County taxpayers alone pay about $3.5 million a year for state prisoners housed in the county jail,” Hyde’s letter noted, adding that as of August, the cost to house one inmate is $71.29 per day, but the state only reimburses the county $40 per day.
It was just this March when state lawmakers increased the daily rate from $32 to $40.
“The last prison that Arkansas built was in 2003, so we have literally gone two decades without an additional prison and we’re sitting here with the 4th highest violent crime in the United States,” said Mark Whitmore, chief counsel for the Association of Arkansas Counties.
Currently, 1,900 state inmates are overcrowding county jails, but Whitmore said that’s just the tip of the iceberg – it does not include active warrants.
“By the end of the year, we’re going to have a record number of active warrants. Matter of fact, the total number of misdemeanor active warrants total as of yesterday, according to ACIC [Arkansas Crime Information Center], is 165,000,” said Whitmore.
State lawmakers on both sides of the aisle reacted to the idea of building a new prison.
“If you build two more prisons or three more prisons, we always are going to say it’s not enough,” said Rep. Fred Allen, D-Little Rock. “We need to look at intervention, prevention, we need to spend more money on education. We need to do a lot of other things to try and prevent people from going to prison because once they get into the system, they’re going to stay in the system.”
“One of the things that Judge Hyde was talking about is that this is not the only solution, but this needs to be the first focus right now,” said Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock. “There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed obviously with total reform, but right now what we’ve got is in immediate need of being able to have more places to put our violent offenders so that our streets are safer.”
Both legislators agreed this needs to be a bipartisan effort and that building a new prison without investing further in rehabilitation programs will not solve overcrowding.
Earlier this year, lawmakers appropriated up to $75 million in surplus money to expand operations at the state’s North Central Unit in Calico Rock. That amount would open nearly 500 additional beds.
Editor’s note: Marine Glisovic is a senior political reporter for content partner KATV News.