LITTLE ROCK — Correction officials say electronic monitoring could play a bigger role not only in reducing prison overcrowding but also in improved supervision of those on parole.
Dina Tyler, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Corrections, said a recently signed contract with an electronic monitoring firm should save the state money, nearly eliminate the department’s monitoring responsibilities and result in more parolees being released with electronic ankle bracelets.
"Before, those parole officers who had parolees on electronic monitoring had to keep up with them on the monitor and so they might be a little reluctant to put them on that because they couldn’t keep up with them," she said, adding the new contract with 3M Electronic Monitoring reduces the monthly cost of using an electronic bracelet by about 36 percent from $6.25 to $4.02.
"I think you will see a more liberal use of it," Tyler said, adding that currently 137 parolees with electronic monitoring bracelets are under DCC supervision across the state.
Prison officials also said last week they could release more nonviolent offenders, those serving 120 days or less for Class C and Class D felony convictions, if the Legislature amended the state law.
"There are so many hurdles attached to this (law)," said John Felts, chairman of the state Parole Board, adding that the law is too narrow and that relatively few inmates qualify.
Felts and Tyler told lawmakers attending a joint meeting of four legislative committees last week at the Southeastern Arkansas Community Correction Center in Pine Bluff that the current law concerning electronic monitoring of nonviolent inmates — part of Act 570 of 2011, the state’s sentencing reforms — limits who can be released with an electronic bracelet.
"It was really designed for people sentenced to the Department of Arkansas Correction that were not supposed to have been to prison anyway," Felts said, adding that they’ve found fewer than eight inmates who actually fit the criteria since Act 570 took effect two years ago.
Act 570 was enacted in response to a 2010 study by the Pew Center’s Public Safety Performance project, which found that the state’s prison population had doubled in the past 20 years to more than 16,000 and that housing ever more inmates could cost the state $1.1 billion over the next decade.
Reforming sentencing guidelines could save about $875 million over the next decade, the Pew study said.
Act 570 provided for lesser sentences for some nonviolent offenders and mostly drug-related crimes. The law also made some nonviolent offenders eligible for parole earlier, with electronic monitoring as a condition of early release in some cases.
The sentencing guidelines and the way DCC handles parolees gained statewide attention in May with the arrest of Darrell Dennis, a parolee accused of committing murder while free after multiple arrests.
Gov. Mike Beebe ordered an internal DCC investigation, and the Arkansas State Police is conducting an administrative investigation into what happened and how another breakdown might be avoided. Last month the Department of Correction released findings from its investigation, which concluded that a number of factors contributed to the breakdown of procedures in Dennis’ case, including jail overcrowding, but found no wrongdoing by employees.
In an effort to address some of the issues within DCC, the state Board of Corrections in July approved a series of new mandates to improve the disciplining and monitoring of parolees accused of new crimes and waiting for a hearing. One of the new mandates prohibits parole officers from letting jailed parolees back on the street if a mental health evaluation is pending.
One of the drawbacks of the new policies, however, has been a rise in the jail population.
Sheila Sharp, director of DCC, said recently that more than 800 parolees and probationers have been jailed since the new policies took effect, which has caused a backup in county jails across the state. Of the nearly 1,500 state inmates being held in county jails last week, about 400 were parolees or probationers waiting hearings.
State Prison Director Ray Hobbs also said the department is seeing a slight increase in the number of people being convicted and sentenced to state prison.
"For 14 to 16 months we had less than 300 inmates backed up in the county jails," Hobbs told lawmakers last week.
Hobbs also said the department has about 350 beds in several facilities across the state that are ready to open, but it doesn’t have enough money to cover the operational costs, estimated at about $8 million.
He also said prison officials are considering a proposal to refurbish the old Pine Bluff Diagnostic Unit to house about 400 inmates and some parolees waiting for hearings.
Some lawmakers expressed frustration with the rising prison population, noting that when Act 570 was being debated they were told it would help reduce the prison population.
Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, and Rep. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith, both said they were led to believe that increased use of electronic monitoring would help alleviate the inmate population and asked why it wasn’t being used.
"I voted for (Act 570) because of a set of facts that was presented to us … and I don’t see those being accurate based on us having this conversation about future growth and the trouble we’re in, not enough money to maintain the facilities or the staffing," Williams said.
Both Williams and Altes asked prison officials if there was anything the Legislature could do to Act 570 that would possibly help reduce the inmate population.
"My question is, looking back … are there some things in 570 that didn’t work exactly like you thought?" Williams asked.
Hobbs and Sharp, along with other state correction officials, said they would develop some recommendations and submit them to lawmakers.
"This doesn’t mean that we’re going to completely throw out Act 570," Williams said. "Implement, review and adjust and that is exactly the phase we’re in. We’re reviewing and then we’ll make some adjustment."