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Pulaski County officials call for state prison expansion

Daniel Breen
Mark Whitmore, chief legal counsel for the Association of Arkansas Counties, speaks to reporters and lawmakers alongside Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde.

Leaders in government and law enforcement in central Arkansas are calling for an increase in the number of state prison beds to help address overcrowding in county jails.

Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde, North Little Rock Mayor Terry Hartwick and others signed an open letter to state lawmakers calling on them to address the problem, which they say has led to an increase in violent crime. The letter, along with a joint resolution from the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association and the state County Judges Association, says overcrowding in state prisons has led to too many inmates being housed in county jails.

Hyde and Hartwick joined officials in a conversation with several state lawmakers Wednesday to discuss the issue. Mark Whitmore, chief legal counsel for the Association of Arkansas Counties, cited a state law known as the Emergency Powers Act which allows the state to release inmates if prisons and jails are too crowded.

“And they release convicted felons, some of them violent felons, early because they have to make room for another spot for somebody that just got convicted of a violent felony,” Whitmore said. “Every year for the last decade they’ve released over 2,000 convicted felons early, not because the justice system directed that they be released, but simply because we don’t have enough bed space.”

Whitmore said state prisons have long dealt with overcrowding, with many located in southern Arkansas where staffing shortages are more prevalent. He said the state also lacks a sufficient number of maximum-security beds.

State Rep. Fred Allen, D-Little Rock, said that law is not solely to blame for overcrowding in correctional facilities, saying changes to parole guidelines have made it harder for inmates to be released early.

“There was a time when it was the majority vote that allowed inmates to get out of prison. Now you have to have five votes to get someone out of prison versus four votes in the past, so when those rules changed, you’re automatically going to have some backup into the Department of Corrections system,” Allen said, also citing a policy change allowing the state Parole Board to prohibit inmates from re-applying for release for two years instead of one.

Whitmore said expanding prison bed space is necessary to improve the state’s standing as fourth in the nation for violent crime.

“Some things that these organizations have staunchly supported [are] behavioral health, mental health, drug courts and re-entry. Those are important, they also help the criminal justice system, but you don’t forsake adding a new prison over those tools,” Whitmore said.

State lawmakers earlier this year voted to approve $75 million to go toward a roughly 500-bed expansion of a state prison in the north Arkansas town of Calico Rock. A study released last year found Arkansas should have 3,500 more prison beds to accommodate a potential increase in people being incarcerated.

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.