- Associated Press - Monday, February 9, 2015

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson pledged Monday that he’s committed to finding money to open more space for thousands of state inmates crowding local jails but said he wants to avoid the 1,000-bed prison corrections officials have proposed.

Speaking to a group of county judges around the state, the Republican governor said the Legislature must address the prison overcrowding problem during this year’s session. Hutchinson said roughly 2,500 state prisoners are currently being housed in local jails.

“The solution we come up with should include new funding for prison space,” Hutchinson said. “No matter how you deal with the issue, no matter how you cut it, no matter how you analyze it, we need more prison space. Now, I hope it’s not a 1,000-bed new prison, but we need new prison space.”

Hutchinson’s proposed $5.2 billion budget for the coming year includes additional money for the state prison system, including higher reimbursements for counties holding Arkansas inmates, but it doesn’t include money for additional space.

Hutchinson said he didn’t have a number of how much funding is needed or where it will come from, saying that will depend on how the state opens additional space for prisoners. He said options could include expanding existing prisons or opening regional facilities in cooperation with the counties.

Hutchinson, who last week signed into law a measure cutting income taxes by $102 million a year for the middle class, again cautioned lawmakers about the impact of any additional tax reductions or other spending proposals.

“Part of it is the discipline of this Legislature in sticking with the balanced budget I presented,” Hutchinson told reporters. “If there is additional appropriations that are passed or more spending initiative or more tax cuts, then that impacts our ability to address this challenge.”

Legislative leaders have said the new prison proposed by correction officials has little support among lawmakers.

Hutchinson said the solution will also need to include finding ways to reduce the number of parolees and probationers who are returning to prison, which has fueled the overcrowding effort. He said that includes more parole officers and re-entry programs to help prisoners adjust returning to society.

“I have no doubt unless we change behavior, then we’re going to be building a 1,000-bed new prison followed by another 1,000-bed new prison,” Hutchinson “We as a state cannot afford that type of continued building of new prisons.”

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