Larry Norris, Arkansas’ corrections director, told state legislators in May that he faces a “scary” situation, reports the Arkansas Times. After 30 years of policies born out of promises to be “tough on crime,” Norris and other state officials finding themselves surrounded on all sides by numbers – and the numbers relating to prisons are menacing.
The Arkansas Board of Corrections now supervises more than 56,000 convicts. That means one of every 47 Arkansas residents is in prison or on probation or parole. Taxpayers pay $4,000 per year, on average, for every inmate, probationer and parolee being supervised. That amount would about cover a year’s worth of tuition and fees at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
The price for keeping a single prisoner behind bars averages more than $15,000 a year – an amount that’s almost half the salary of an average Arkansas classroom teacher. Those numbers don’t even suggest the whole picture. They do not include the roughly 700 juvenile offenders whom courts have ordered into state supervision; nor do they include the hundreds of prisoners awaiting trials in county and regional jails.
The numbers have pushed Arkansas’s prison system to the point of collapse. County and regional jails are desperately overloaded. Even the newest have run out of room. As director of the state prison system, Norris can’t possibly keep up with the all the felons the courts are sending him. As he told legislators, “We can’t build our way out of this problem.”
Arkansas probation and parole officers are staggering under caseloads significantly larger than those carried by their counterparts in most other states. In May, the legislature allowed prisons to release non-violent inmates whenever the populations outgrew space available. But substantial numbers of early releases just enlarge the pool of parolees, creating difficulties for managers in that system who are struggling to reduce parole officers’ caseloads.
As state accountants sweat over budgets that need to be slashed by $373 million, the number of Arkansans being sentenced to prison increased by 50 a month. The tough talk of the ’80s and ’90s has taken on a milder tone, now that there’s less money to back up the swagger.