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02.20.2015

Prisons and Public Safety

If you picked up the newspaper the other day, you may have noticed this headline: “One killed, three injured in shooting….”

Like you, I’m tired of reading these stories. Public safety has always been a critical issue, but lately, because of crowding in our prisons and jails, public safety is on everyone’s mind. And stories like this one make us even more frustrated. How do we stop this cycle of violence?

It’s a fair question. It deserves an answer.

Let’s look at the facts:

Arkansas has too many prisoners and not enough prison space. As of last week, we were above capacity in our state prisons, and because of that, more than 2,500 inmates are backed up in county jails.

As any sheriff and prosecutor will tell you, there is a crying need for more prison space. The lack of bed space causes a dangerous chain reaction: state prisoners fill up our county jails, repeat offenders are released on bond because there’s no room, and some prisoners are released early.

Last year, more than 10,000 inmates were released from prison on parole. Our parole system couldn’t handle that increased caseload. So instead of holding parolees accountable and providing them reentry support, too many parolees became repeat offenders.

It’s a vicious cycle. It puts the safety of the public at risk. It also slows the economic growth of our state. Businesses and entrepreneurs may be wary of relocating where there’s a crime problem.  What you think about when you consider a job change or a move to another state?  Is it safe?  How is the quality of life?  Can I be comfortable raising my family there?

It’s all tied back to public safety.

On Wednesday, I announced my Public Safety Plan. My plan is a three-part approach to criminal offenses.  First, we need more prison space.  Second, we need a more effective parole and reentry system, and third, we have to invest in alternative and accountable sentencing programs for non-violent offenders.

The total cost is $64 million with an investment of $32 million within the current budget.

After I announced my plan, I was asked why this approach is better than simply building another state prison.

For one, building a new prison would cost about $100 million. So we’re saving a substantial amount of money. Secondly, and more importantly, a $100-million prison does not change behavior. My plan not only invests in more prison space but it gives us our best chance to reduce the number of repeat offenders. This way, maybe we won’t face the need to build new prisons again and again.

It’s time we broke the cycle.

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