LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Pulaski Co. Judge Barry Hyde hosted a meeting Wednesday to ask legislators to fund a prison expansion with state surplus money. Hyde said prison overcrowding is causing jails to back up.

“This is a public safety issue,” Hyde said.

Hyde referenced a 2018 study by the criminal justice group JFA. The study indicated Arkansas needed around 3,500 new prison beds to deal with the system’s overcrowding.

“We need more prison space, but the excuse every year was that we couldn’t afford it,” Hyde said. “We didn’t have the money.” 

Hyde said the issue led Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) to sign the Emergency Powers Act during the pandemic, which led to inmates being released early to free up beds. He said a mix of violent and nonviolent inmates were in that group.

The prison system’s overcrowding has led to jails holding people for longer than necessary, Hyde said.

“Pulaski County is licensed as 1,210 beds,” Hyde said. “Today’s population is 1,304. Draw your own conclusions.” 

Democratic and Republican lawmakers were in attendance, and a panel asked them to fund a prison expansion with some of the $1.6 billion in state surplus money. Earlier this month, they used a portion for tax returns and school safety grants.

Democratic legislators expressed concern that the idea is too narrow and should include intervention and prevention measures.

“We can’t build our way out of this,” said Rep. Fred Allen (D).

Allen said if the state adds more beds, it will simply fill them. He said he fears one expansion would lead to more in the future.

“They’re saying they’re going to build more prisons,” Allen said. “Then they’ll say a year, two years from now, they’re going to say we need more prisons.”

Hyde pointed to social programs Pulaski Co. has and said he supports doing more on that front. He said expanding prison space would not fix all problems but is necessary. “I don’t think that’s the solution to all our problems, but I think that part of our system is inadequate,” Hyde said. “While we have $1.6 billion, we ought to fix it.”