Arkansas legislators are nearing approval of Gov. Mike Beebe's plan to rein in prison costs and ease chronic inmate overcrowding, reports the Arkansas News Bureau. A 79-14 House vote assured Beebe a victory on a cornerstone of his legislative agenda. Arkansas' prison system routinely holds thousands more prisoners than it was built to house, with hundreds more state convicts backed up in county jails awaiting bed space among the burgeoning prison population.
The reform bill would lessen sentences for some nonviolent offenses, expand alternative-sentencing programs such as drug courts. and allow the state Department of Community Correction to restore 49 positions for parole and probation officers. The cost of the bill is $9 million, with a third of the cost coming from an increase in parole and probation fees and the remaining $6 million from general revenue. The expenses are included in the governor's proposed balanced budget. Supporters say hardened criminals will do their time under the measure while some nonviolent offenders are diverted to alternatives other than prison. Without the bill, prisons costs would increase by $1.1 billion over the next decade; supporters say the new measure will reduce those costs by $875 million.