Arkansas officials have turned to outside help to get a handle on chronic overcrowding that has the state prison system bursting at the seams and at the bank, the Arkansas News Bureau reports. A working group that has been meeting for nearly a year sought assistance from the Pew Center on the States to help craft recommendations for opening more prison space for hardened criminals and diverting lesser offenders to alternative punishment. “What we're doing now is not working,” said Sen. Jim Luker.
Over the past two decades, stiffer sentences, particularly for drug-related crimes, and few alternatives have combined to swell the inmate population well past capacity at state prison units and strain the state's ability to pay local governments to house the overflow of state prisoners temporarily in county jails. Arkansas' prison population has more than doubled in the past 20 years, and in 2009 alone the number of inmates grew 3.1 percent, the eighth largest percentage increase nationwide in a state with fewer than 1 percent of the nation's population. Gov. Mike Beebe balked at approving a $20 million for the state to operate new prison space planned or under construction because he wants to see the working group's report, due soon. “You're going to see some legislation that we're going to propose that tries to get a handle on the increasing prison costs by punishing nonviolent people in a different way that's more cost effective,” Beebe said. “It will still punish them and save the beds for the bad guys.”