- Associated Press - Monday, December 1, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Take an exploding prison population, a growing call for tighter restrictions on parolees and a politically unpopular proposal to raise money for a new 1,000-bed prison. What do you get? A recipe for a major headache legislators will face when they return to the Capitol next year.

The options detailed for lawmakers in a report issued last week on how to address a backlog of state inmates in county jails highlights just how much prison reform is going to dominate the agenda of a legislative session already likely to be overshadowed by fights over Medicaid and tax cuts.

“This is a problem that if we continue to Band-Aid it, we’re going to continue to deal with it,” said Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I think it’s time for the Legislature to step up and fix it, and that’s going to take more resources.”

Where to find those resources is the biggest problem. With an outgoing governor calling for delaying some of the tax cuts lawmakers approved last year and an incoming governor who vowed to cut taxes even further, lawmakers face a strapped budget as they try to find the money to build and operate the proposed prison.

And the leading idea to raise money for a prison - raising the fee on car tag decals by $2 - is already raising hackles from a Legislature firmly in the control of Republicans who expanded their majorities partly on an anti-tax message.

“I know in the past government has created a crisis and then went to the people and asked for a tax increase, and that’s how they get them. Well, I hope those days are over,” said Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, chairman of the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee. “We’re going to do our homework and we’re going to put alternatives on the table to not have to increase taxes, whether it’s car tags or actual taxes.”

But the alternatives could prove to be just as tricky as finding the funds for a new prison. The alternatives laid out by the Bureau of Legislative Research report include sending some of Arkansas’ inmates to a prison operated out of state by a private company, something that Williams says can be done much cheaper than the roughly $63 a day Arkansas spends for its inmates.

But that proposal is likely to face obstacles in the Legislature, where some lawmakers may be wary of handing over a state function like corrections over to a private company.

Other ideas outlined in the report include using abandoned school buildings and other available structures rather than constructing new prisons, expanding alternative sentencing programs such as drug courts and increased funding for the state’s probation and parole program.

Nearly 2,500 of the state’s roughly 18,000 inmates are currently housed in county jails statewide. Lawmakers have already set aside $6 million to hire staff and open up 600 more prison beds to ease overcrowding at local jails.

State prison officials say they’re open to all the ideas, but say building a new prison must be part of the mix.

“A new prison is just a small piece, but in my view it would be a necessary piece,” Larry Norris, the Department of Correction’s interim director, told the legislative panel.

The fight over how to pay for the prison system improvements will also be shaded by another push to overhaul the state’s probation and parole system. One advocate for reforming the probation program said those efforts are going to be hampered by a lack of prison space. In other words, there’s little threat posed to probationers who re-offend if there’s nowhere to send them.

“Until the threat is real, we’re not going to see probation have the type of success that we want it to have,” Hutchinson said.

___

Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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