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Recidivism rates in Arkansas prisons ‘unacceptably high,’ Department of Corrections secretary says

Arkansas' recidivism rates are "unacceptably high," the secretary of the Department of Corrections told legislators Monday during the Arkansas Legislative Council's Joint Charitable, Penal and Correctional Institutions Subcommittee meeting.

Solomon Graves said Arkansas' recidivism rate for prisoners released in 2017 was 46.1% department-wide, with a recidivism rate of 47.8% within the Division of Correction and a 37.5% recidivism rate within the Division of Community Corrections.

"Our recidivism rates are unacceptably high," said Graves, who was appointed director of the state Department of Corrections in July 2020 by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. "That is the belief held by our leadership, a belief held by the Department of Corrections, and a belief held by our administration."

Graves told subcommittee members the recidivism percentage -- which is measured during the three years after a prisoner is released -- has gone down from the 2016 cohort class but remains too high.

"We have work to do," he said. "We need to do a better job preparing individuals for greater success while they are in our custody."

Graves assured subcommittee members that addressing recidivism rates is something the state's prison system can handle on its own, but said it would involve collaboration with advocacy groups and faith-based communities.

"This will also involve leveraging best practices and talking honestly internally about what we are doing, and that means [having] some hard conversations," Graves said. "Are we implementing programs that make us feel good? Or are we doing programs that do good?"

Prison overcrowding was a hot topic among legislators during the recent fiscal session after sheriffs from across the state complained about overcrowding within Arkansas' county jails because of the inmate backup at state prisons. The overflow of state prisoners sent to county facilities for detention has created an unsafe environment for county jail employees, sheriffs told legislators.

Cindy Murphy, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Corrections, said there are 67,044 Arkansans under parole or probation supervision, and Department of Corrections data from 2021 show the numbers for parole and probation are expected to continue to rise.

The historical probation number was 29,799 and historical parole numbers were at 22,532 in 2014, data show. The average from 2014 to 2020 has increased 2.5% for probation and 2.6% for parole.

Probation numbers for 2031 are projected to reach 41,279, and parole numbers are expected to rise to 30,177. Those are increases of 1.7% for probation and 2% for parole.

Murphy said Monday the number of parole absconders is 4,811 and the number of probation absconders is 8,048.

Legislators asked where Arkansas ranks among its peers in recidivism rates, but Graves said direct comparisons to other states are difficult to make because of the way the state classifies recidivism.

"In Arkansas we count recidivism as re-incarceration, re-conviction or re-arrest in a three-year period," he said. "Most states don't look at re-arrests."

Graves said that makes Arkansas' statistical tracking an outlier.

"It's like comparing apples to watermelons," he said.

Former inmates Ruby Welch and Laura Berry also spoke to the subcommittee about ways to reduce recidivism.

Welch, campaign coordinator for Dream Corps JUSTICE, said the three things that must be looked at are employment, education, and fines and fees. Institute of Corrections statistics show that 85% to 95% of formerly incarcerated people who are rearrested are unemployed, she said.

"Employment is the single most important factor to reduce recidivism," she said.

Welch suggested banning the incarceration box on employment applications as a way to address the employment issue.

"We can also continue to build off the work that the legislature did in 2021 and expand record sealing," she said. "We could join states like Pennsylvania and Michigan and make this process automatic. This would help a lot of people be able to enter the workforce and become productive citizens."

Education within the prison system would help too, Welch said.

"I was incarcerated for seven years but was unable to do any schooling until three years from going home," she said. "I lost my [salon] license, but I went back to school those last three years and received it again when I came home. I was able to work at a salon because I had a license.

"That is why education is so important."

Welch said the odds of recidivism decrease with higher levels of education.

"We should expand educational opportunities for those incarcerated by adding more post-secondary education courses and vocational training," she said. "We should also make sure that individuals who are helping folks before leaving incarceration prepare them to continue their education and help them on the path to get their license in some fields."

Berry said when she was sentenced to life in prison, she wasn't allowed into any of the available programs because requirements only allowed those close to parole to take part in classes.

"I was serving a life sentence as a juvenile, so the only way of getting into programs was to be a mentor to others so I could absorb the information," she said. "Act 539 made me eligible for immediate parole, so if I hadn't taken it upon myself to find a way to get into these programs I would have gone into society without any training."

Welch said research also has shown half of families with convicted members cannot afford to pay the fines and fees they owe.

"We should make sure that these fees are waived for at least the first six months after someone re-enters [society], along with other reforms, so that we can make sure that they can get on their feet and provide for their families," she said.

Graves told legislators that growth among new inmates has mostly been at levels eight through 10, which are violent crimes. Levels are set by the sentencing commission.

"We don't have enough maximum security beds," Graves told the commission.

Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, said that needed to be emphasized and put on the record for the public.

"We have to dispel the myth that we are overrun by non-violent drug offenses," he said, "because that is not the case."


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