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EDITORIAL | Don’t Look For Prison Crowding Solutions In Special Session

The overcrowding in Arkansas’ prisons and jails is an important public-safety issue. It is too important, in fact, to appear as an afterthought in a special session this year.

Two possible special session topics already are under discussion in the state: the troubled teacher health-insurance system and the Lottery Commission’s decision to add monitor games.

Last week, the Arkansas Sheriff’s Association issued a news release asking that if a special legislative session were called, overcrowding also be covered in the session.

House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, has said he wants Gov. Mike Beebe to call a special session to address the school employees’ health insurance, according to news reports. Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, has said that if Beebe grants Carter’s request, he wants to introduce legislation to block the state Lottery Commission from offering monitor games.

The health insurance issue looks like it could use legislators’ full attention. The lottery issue (we’re tempted to call it a non-issue) would seem to be something that would fly or fail on a relatively simple vote.

Overcrowding at prisons and jails is going to be thorny and contentious. The tough-on-crime group and the no-new-taxes group are going to have their hands full working out a solution to this.

A couple of high profile crimes committed by parolees who surely should have been in jail predictably made prison officials and elected officials alike want to see more parolees in state correctional facilities. Laws were made to that effect. But increasing the census at state facilities in turn put pressure on county jails, which have to accept the overflow from state prisons while dealing with their own inmates.

Jail budgets for food, medical care and general supplies are stressed at the county level, despite what the state pays for care of prisoners it sends to the counties. Even more important, overcrowding is dangerous for inmates and correctional staff. Accidents happen when people are stressed. Small annoyances become major aggravations in close quarters. Violence can follow.

There is not likely one answer to the problem. More beds, more correctional officers, more diversion strategies for non-violent offenders: These are all probably part of the solution, but they are expensive parts and finding the money will not be easy. Further, these solutions alone have not yet proven to be sufficient. There’s plenty of hard work ahead in finding newer answers to new problems.

The situation is just too complex to be rushed through a special session. Instead, now is the time for legislative committees and the Arkansas Sheriff’s Association to be studying, consulting, considering and researching, so that when the next General Assembly convenes after the first of the year, real progress can be made on this issue.

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