Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Here We Go, Again!

©Wendell Griffen, 2015
Justice Is a Verb!
July 28, 2015

Yesterday Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson announced a plan to add 200 more prison beds to the already record number of people our state currently incarcerates.   The projected cost of doing that will be $7.4 million “above and beyond” $33 million approved to increase the number of prison beds, invest in more parole officers, and reduce the prison population by shuffling some prisoners to locations out of state.

I confess to being unimpressed, again.

I mentioned when Governor Hutchinson unveiled what he termed a plan for “criminal justice reform” earlier this year that the plan was unsound.  Governor Hutchinson’s approach, both with the announcement yesterday as with his plan earlier this year, follows the failed view that the nation (and Arkansas) will or should incarcerate ourselves into a healthier, safer, and more productive society.  We haven’t done so to this point.  Arkansas won’t do so by adding 200 more prison beds.

Instead of trying to find more places to warehouse people I have long argued that policymakers should ask hard questions about the people we intend to imprison and why we think they should be locked away.  We should and must imprison people who kill, maim, rape, rob, and terrorize their neighbors.  But we don’t have 20,000 murderers, rapists, assailants, armed robbers, and terrorists in Arkansas prisons

In fact, the leading cause for admission into the Arkansas Department of Correction (based on 2014 data) involved manufacture, delivery, or possession of controlled substances.  That category of offenses occurred almost three times more than theft of property.  Murder, rape, and armed robbery didn't even make it into the top ten causes for ADC admissions.

So the unpleasant truth Governor Hutchinson's approach doesn't address is that a substantial quantity of the prison population consists of people convicted of non-violent offenses associated with drug possession and dependency.  Governor Hutchinson could commute the prison terms of those persons and free them from incarceration, thereby freeing bed space for people who kill, maim, kidnap, rape, and rob others.   

However, commutation might cause people to start questioning all the money, time, and effort expended to capture, arrest, prosecute, convict, and imprison non-violent drug offenders as a colossal waste.  Perhaps we would begin to recognize the “war on drugs” as little besides a cruel pretext for legally disenfranchising black, brown, and poor white people for engaging in non-violent unhealthy conduct. 

$7.4 million dollars for prison beds won’t stop people from using drugs.  It won’t treat drug dependency.  It won’t provide jobs for people who’ve been incarcerated.  It won’t prevent the children and other family members of the 200 people who will occupy those beds from being more likely to slide deeper into poverty, become more socially, nutritionally, and culturally vulnerable.   It’s just another exercise in misguided policy-making under the guise of criminal justice reform.   It's an excuse to build more warehouses for people who are chemically dependent and mentally ill, although not dangerous, while complaining we don't have space to put people who are truly dangerous (killers, armed robbers, rapists, and otherwise violent).

There is nothing reformative about repeating old mistakes no matter who champions doing so. Arkansas needs more people in school, not jail.  We need more classrooms and teachers, not prison beds and guards.  We need more treatment facilities for people to access who are chemically dependent and for people who suffer from mental illness.  We need an approach to mass incarceration that doesn’t more incarceration, but involves education, job training and re-employment, affordable housing, and effective public interventions with people and families who are chemically dependent.

In other words, we must do something very different from what we’ve been doing if we hope to get different results.  Governor Hutchinson hasn’t offered anything different, only more of the same incarceration mindset responsible for our present predicament. 

Here we go again.  We have decided to run backwards, again, and call doing so “progress.”  


  1. July 27, 2015

    Governor Asa Hutchinson
    State Capitol Room 250
    500 Woodlane Ave.
    Little Rock, AR 72201

    The Public’s Trust

    Dear Governor Hutchinson,

    Life After Prison Ministries (LAPM) desires to take this opportunity to introduce you to one of your healthiest supporters for prisoner reentry, parole transition, and reentry policy reform in the state. LAPM, a nonprofit charity, 501c3, has, as a corporation, been involved in citizen reentry for the past nine years.

    Operating out of Conway, we are led by a diverse board of Directors who live in Little Rock, Greenbrier, and Conway, Arkansas, and Coon Rapids, Minnesota. Our experience in actively participating in the practice of citizen reentry totals 55 years among our four directors and staff of two.

    Beginning in 2006, we trained and organized reentry mentors around the state as Mentor Volunteer Training coordinators under Prison Fellowship’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative in Arkansas. It would be another eight years before the state corrections agencies would begin developing a reentry program and mentors. From 2009 to the present, LAPM serves in the process of developing Communities of Care that provide a circle of support to citizens returning home from prison. Presently, we have four LAPM ministries and are affiliated with 27 ministries around the state that serve reentry with transition support as needed.

    Over the next few weeks, we will provide you with our analysis of data, particularly as it pertains to reentry, that is available within the 2012, 2013 and 2014 annual reports of both the ADC and ACC, as well as Crime Stat data from the same years published by the Arkansas Crime Information Center.

    From the compilation of that data, we will provide you with a detailed explanation of how, as a two-term Governor, you can save taxpayers a minimum of $202.4 million per year, while reducing the numbers on parole by 38% without decreasing public safety, and reinvesting the savings to receive a substantial return-on-investment (ROI). In fact, if followed as proven, this plan will increase public safety while reducing prison beds and parole numbers, without the need for new legislation.

    Today, we leave you with this assessment and proposal. As the governing organization, the Arkansas Board of Correction is responsible for the failure of the corrections system in Arkansas. Over the past two decades, that Board has been responsible for a system that has languished as it failed to provide taxpayers an ROI, failed to improve the citizens placed under its charge, and created an unhealthy diet of bulging prisons, fat budgets, and failing programs. Moreover, the same individuals who now are coming to the reentry table as the experienced pioneer have led that Board for all those years.

    Wisdom teaches that those whose thinking got one into trouble cannot be those whose thinking gets one out of trouble. Therefore, the current Board of Correction should be replaced with a 6-year, term-limited, bipartisan, reentry-focused membership that seeks to achieve a return on the investments placed upon them by the public’s trust. This new board should comprise membership from the following disciplines: philanthropy (1), behavioral/addictive health (1), mental health (1), employers (1), faith community (1), crime/corrections (1), and offender reentry services (1).

    We wish you Godspeed.


    Michael Willbanks
    Chair, Board of Directors
    Life After Prison Ministries, Conway

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