This article is Part 1 of a new, ongoing series we are calling #ARCorrectionsCrisis, which will focus on the dysfunction of the Arkansas Board of Corrections. We intend to track their actions and educate the public about their conduct until they finally prioritize Arkansas crime victims and the safety of our communities above their own power.
The people of Arkansas scored a major victory this past Spring with the passage of the Protect Arkansas Act. This legislation promises to increase penalties for severe crimes, crackdown on violent, repeat offenders, and finally fix our broken parole system that’s been driving a crime crisis for decades. But this victory—and the safety of Arkansans—is now under direct threat, as unelected bureaucrats have moved to weaponize the courts in order to protect not Arkansas, but their own power.
Even the most casual observer of Arkansas politics has likely caught wind of this unfolding drama. It’s been a long game of tug-of-war between the Arkansas Board of Corrections and the rest of state government.
The situation hit a boiling point recently when the board called an emergency meeting and voted to suspend Secretary of Corrections Joe Profiri and file a lawsuit against the state of Arkansas over what appears on the surface to be an overblown personality conflict. But in reality, it’s about much, much more.
And while the board is working overtime to spin this nightmare—which they created—as a “constitutional” dilemma, the real crisis is what’s unfolding on our streets, and the lack of accountability the board faces from, well, anyone.
As way of background, let's take a quick look at the state of public safety in Arkansas today. Here’s the terrifying reality, according to FBI data:
These sobering statistics are just the tip of the iceberg underlying Arkansas’s crime crisis. Countless Arkansans personally experience it every single day, whether it’s through having their small business burglarized or a loved one injured, often by repeat offenders.
How did things get so bad? Much of it stems directly from the Board of Corrections. And the consequences? Nothing. Because they are unelected and, in their view, entirely autonomous and unaccountable.
The crime crisis ravaging our great state is being driven by terrible, failed policy that has been perpetuated by the Board of Corrections. Plain and simple.
Take, as just one example, the board's reckless use of the Emergency Powers Act (EPA) which has been repeatedly used to release inmates en masse into the public. In fact, in just the three years before Gov. Sarah Sanders took office, more than 4,300 prisoners were released early.
It’s a dangerous, irresponsible policy of catch-and-release.
The legislature, through the Protect Arkansas Act, has worked to significantly curb the use of the EPA and keep violent criminals off our streets, but the board has fought back: not only did they testify against the law during the legislative session, they've now filed suit to stop it just days before it was scheduled to go into effect.
Their arguments are not centered on public safety or what's best for Arkansas. No, their arguments are all about who has the "authority" to make these decisions and their alleged autonomy.
But has the board been held responsible for their failed policies? Not exactly.
It has become increasingly clear that the Board of Corrections views themselves as a fully autonomous, fourth branch of state government. Don't take our word for it: look at their own public comments.
Here's one board member, Mr. Dubs Byers, testifying against the Protect Arkansas Act last Spring. In his remarks, he clearly notes that his opposition to the bill is due to the "diminishing" of the power of the board:
Board Chair Benny Magness made similar remarks when he spoke against the bill as well.
And look also at their legal filing against the Protect Arkansas Act, where they argue the governor nor the attorney general can "usurp the power of the Board of Corrections." And "political independence" is a key component of their work.
Much of the board's argument in favor of their "autonomy" centers around Amendment 33 of the Arkansas Constitution. No doubt, Amendment 33 will play a pivotal role in how this all plays out, and we'll have some thoughts of our own on it in the coming days. But putting the legal arguments aside for a moment and thinking practically, what mechanisms actually exist to keep the board in check when they veer off course, as they so clearly have?
Members of the Board of Corrections are unelected—they never have to answer to the people of Arkansas even though they are the ones who suffer as a result of the board's failed policy decisions. They also enjoy seven year terms, without any term limits.
Even worse, while the governor gets to appoint members of the board, per the state constitution, they can only be removed if a majority of the board consents to it—and that’s unlikely to ever happen. So they are not really accountable to the governor.
And, as we are seeing unfold before our eyes right now, the Board of Corrections clearly thinks they are not subject to the authority of the Arkansas legislature, the elected, accountable voice of the people of Arkansas who is responsible for making laws that the board and other executive bodies are supposed to carry out.
So if the board is not accountable to the voters or the governor, and they are also free from any legislative oversight, then to whom are they accountable? The answer is no one.
And this is exactly why their catch-and-release policy has gone unchecked for so long, why staffing shortages have not been addressed, and crime has stayed near record levels. It's also why all of these things are unlikely to get any better until reform is made.
The Board of Corrections wants all of the authority and autonomy but none of the accountability. And while they fight to retain their power, Arkansans are concerned about keeping themselves and their families safe. But Arkansas is unlikely to see a serious reduction in crime unless and until real accountability is infused into the corrections system.
Despite what some liberal state legislators assert, humans are driven by incentives and accountability. Without it, there is never any need for course correction—and we're seeing right now how disastrous that is.
Public safety affects every single Arkansan–and the rise in crime and decrease in safety in recent years demands change.
And it’s why we should demand that Arkansas’s Board of Corrections prioritize public safety over politics by working with the Sanders adminisitration, Secretary Profiri, and the rest of state government solve our crime crisis now.
This situation is rapidly developing, so click here to see an updated timeline on the fight to bring accountability to the Board of Corrections, plus insight into how we got to this point.