LITTLE ROCK — State corrections officials Wednesday credited reforms enacted two years ago with easing overcrowding and slowing rising costs, but they asked lawmakers for an additional $5.7 million next fiscal year to open more than 450 new prison beds at several units across the state.
Prison Director Ray Hobbs said one of the goals is to move all elderly inmates, or those with psychological problems, to the Department of Correction’s Ouachita River Special Needs Unit in Malvern.
Prison officials presented their proposed budget to members of the Legislative Council and Joint Budget Committee, who have been reviewing agency budgets this fall in advance of the 2013 legislative session.
On Thursday, the Beebe administration is scheduled to present its revenue forecast and the governor’s $4.5 billion balanced budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins next July 1.
Wednesday, David Eberhard, director of the Department of Community Correction, credited Act 570 of 2011 for a steady drop in the prison population. He also noted that about 400 state inmates are currently backed up in county jails waiting for bed space to open in the state system, compared to a backlog of nearly 2,000 in the past.
Eberhard said since the sentencing and probation guidelines and reforms were enacted, the number of probation revocations has dropped by 200.
"The practices we have put into place have been effective," he said. "We have the ability now to engage in more services and programs that are directed at addressing needs that should reduce recidivism. We have a greater ability now than we’ve ever had in the past."
Act 570 provides for lesser sentences for some nonviolent offenders and mostly drug-related crimes. The law also makes some nonviolent offenders eligible for parole earlier, with electronic monitoring as a condition of early release in some cases.
Eberhard said Wednesday that the electronic monitoring program has yet to be implemented.
Act 570 also provides for less severe punishment for some parolees who fail to report to a parole officer or fail a drug test. Those offenders could serve up to seven consecutive days in jail rather than being sent back to prison to serve their full sentence.
The Department of Community Correction has submitted a $108 million budget for next fiscal year, an $11.7 million increase over the current budget. The additional funding would allow for 96 additional positions in the department, mostly in probation/parole community supervision programs and drug courts, officials said.
Gov. Mike Beebe’s budget requests a $103 million increase, which would allow for 60 additional positions.
Also Wednesday, Department of Correction requested $414 million for the next fiscal year, about $46 million more than its current budget. The governor has recommended $400 million.
The bulk of the new money, about $30 million, would be for inmate care and custody, lawmakers were told. The additional money would be used to hire 81 new employees and restore 125 positions to support the opening of more than 450 beds.
Rep. Debra Hobbs, R-Rogers, asked why the additional beds were needed if the prison population was dropping.
The prison director said the Ouachita River Special Needs Unit is equipped to hold elderly inmates and those who are ill or have mental defects.
"Most of our population is aging and to have special needs, medical and mental health inmates … that’s why we’re trying to expand it at one facility where we can reduce the cost by having them all at one facility," he said.
Consolidating services will enable the department to save money, Ray Hobbs said.