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State's Corrections Departments' Budgets Raise Questions, Ruffle Few Feathers

Bobby Ampezzan
Arkansas Department of Corrections chief Wendy Kelley (second from left) and her staff testify before the state legislature's Joint Budget Committee Jan. 10.

Arkansas’s spending on prisons and community corrections got a lengthy examination before a select committee of the state legislature Wednesday, but no legislator took serious issue with the more than half-billion dollar budget.

The Joint Budget Committee took aim at the 2018 budget for the state’s corrections departments, examining everything from health care and prison farms, to the cost of a phone call behind bars.

“If a guy gets put in prison, not only do we put him down there, we fix it to where he can’t even afford to call his family," said state Rep. Kim Hendren (R-Gravette).
"Now that bothers me, and all this budget stuff we're talking about, how you treat your fellow man means a whole lot more to me maybe than these dollars we're talking about."

A phone call costs $3, said Department of Community Corrections director Sheila Sharp, and twelve cents a minute after that.

Credit Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA
State Rep. Kim Hendren (R-Gravette)

Hendren also stuck up for his son, state Sen. Jim Hendren, who’s company Hendren Plastics is a defendant in lawsuits alleging mistreatment of workers in the corrections’ system, court-ordered to work there as an alternative to jail.

“We are right now talking about reintroducing people into society after they serve their time. There are lawsuits right now in Northwest Arkansas, employers getting sued because they participated in something assigned by a judge to hire these people, and these employers are paying their own legal fees about that. That’s outrageous. That oughtta be stopped."

The budget for fiscal year 2017-2018 for the Department of Corrections is roughly $415 million. The budget for the Department of Community Corrections, which oversees programs and monitoring for the state's roughly 9,000 parolees and probationers, according to Sharp, is more like $100 million. 

Democratic state Sen. Will Bond (D-Little Rock) took issue with the absence of money budgeted to hire more parole officers. Arkansas parole officers have a much higher than recommended case load — about 120 or more parolees and probationers per officer.

"We know from our own study that one of the best things we can do, both for the person getting out of prison but also for our own community, is monitor those people very diligently in their first year or two of release. It gives them a much better chance for success in rebuilding their lives — it also makes a community safer."

Credit Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA
State Sen. Will Bond (D-Little Rock)

Bond suggested that $1-$2 million would hire an additional 30 parole officers.

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media's reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.

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