The Board of Corrections is using a Clinton-era law to release violent criminals
7 min read

The Board of Corrections is using a Clinton-era law to release violent criminals

Law & Order
Mar 5
7 min read

This article is Part 8 of an ongoing series called #ARCorrectionsCrisis, which focuses 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.

During the ongoing Arkansas corrections crisis, there has been a lot of attention given to prison capacity, alleged staffing issues, “constitutionality,” separation of powers, and more. But one piece of the puzzle that has been too often overlooked is something called the Emergency Powers Act (EPA).

In short, the EPA is a dangerous, broken policy that has enabled Corrections Board bureaucrats to release inmates early in order to ease pressure on prison capacity–even those convicted of heinous crimes like murder and rape.


In 1987, the then-Democrat controlled Arkansas Legislature passed the Prison Overcrowding Emergency Powers Act (EPA), which was signed into law by Governor Bill Clinton. This legislation gave the Board of Corrections the authority to declare an emergency of prison overcrowding, permitting them to release certain eligible prisoners up to 90 days prior to their parole release eligibility date.

In later years, the EPA was expanded further, adding another mechanism that allowed for early release that is based on county jail overcrowding. This new mechanism allows non-violent inmates who have served a portion of their sentence to have their release date moved forward by up to one year.

As it stands today, these two distinct mechanisms of the EPA still exist:

  • If the Arkansas corrections system exceeds 98 percent of rated capacity for 30 consecutive days, Class I or II inmates may be released early if they are within 90 days of parole eligibility or release;
  • If the county jail backlog exceeds 500 inmates, non-violent offenders who are Class I or II inmates, who have been incarcerated for a minimum of six months, and who are within one year of their date of parole eligibility or release dates may be released early.

In recent months, Board of Corrections member Lee Watson has even referred to the EPA as a “pressure relief valve.” Regrettably, it’s a fitting analogy, as the EPA has become a strategy to relieve pressure on the Board to actually solve the overcrowding problem.


Today, Arkansas’s corrections system is near capacity, as it has been for some time. But instead of dealing with the underlying crime crisis and revolving door that Arkansas prisons have become, the Board has relied on the EPA “relief valve” time and time again.

Between 2011 and 2022, an estimated 27,400 inmates were approved for early release via the EPA, according to the Arkansas Department of Corrections:

Over the same period of these releases, Arkansas’s violent crime rate per capita increased by roughly 34 percent, compared to a slight decline nationwide.

Today, Arkansas has a 70 percent higher violent crime rate than the national average. Specific crimes, such as homicide, have seen even more dramatic spikes, with the Arkansas homicide rate increasing by an astonishing 89 percent over this same period.

And while the county jail backlog mechanism in the EPA requires inmates to be nonviolent in order to be released, there is no such requirement in the 98 percent rated capacity mechanism. This means that, legally, the state may release even violent offenders early under the EPA–and that’s exactly what’s been happening.


Opportunity Arkansas obtained records for inmates the Board of Corrections approved for EPA early release in 2022. While not an exhaustive list from the last decade, here is a complete list of inmates who were approved for early release by the Board in 2022:

As seen in these reports, the inmates the Board approved for release include many individuals convicted of some of the most heinous offenses such as aggravated assault, sexual assault, domestic battery, theft exceeding $25,000, manslaughter, rape, terroristic threats, and even murder.


90 days may not seem like much on its face, but consider a violent criminal sentenced to three years in jail with parole eligibility after six months. Because of the 90-day-early release mechanism in the EPA, violent inmates can be released after serving just three months in jail. 

That's right: Three months on a three year sentence.

Perhaps it is no surprise then that violent crime has skyrocketed: violent criminals are not only being released, but they also know that, even if they commit a heinous act, there’s a decent chance they will just a fraction of their time.

And speaking of re-offending: data from the state reveals that most of the criminals entering the Arkansas prison system are repeat offenders. For example, according to the Department of Corrections, of all inmates admitted in 2021, 58 percent stemmed from a parole violation (most of which were substantive/non-technical in nature).

This is precisely what Governor Sarah Sanders and former Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri mean when referring to the “catch-and-release” policies of the Arkansas Corrections Board: Prisoners are booked on a new offense, thousands are released early each year, and then a majority of admissions back into the system are repeat violators. And the cycle repeats itself over and over again.


Most recently, the Protect Arkansas Act (Act 659 of 2023) added further safeguards to the general public by amending the EPA so that the worst offenders (e.g. those convicted of murder, rape, kidnapping, human trafficking, etc.) would not be eligible for release. This is the same Act 659, unfortunately, that the Board of Corrections has been fighting through the courts, via their illegal lawyer.

Fortunately, these provisions were allowed to go into effect on January 1 of this year, but it will likely be some time before a significant drop in violent crime occurs.


If we want to see real change in the trajectory of crime in Arkansas, we have to start doing things differently. A huge component of this will mean real accountability for the Board of Corrections that is currently unaccountable to anyone but themselves–and so when violent criminals are released and violent crime skyrockets, they face no consequences whatsoever.

For example, at a bare minimum, all Board of Corrections board votes should be clearly included on meeting minutes, so that members of the general public can view how each member voted on a particular issue.

Additionally, Board terms should be reduced from seven years to four years, with a maximum term limit of two terms. This will encourage new perspectives to be heard on the Board, as opposed to the status quo where some members have been serving since the 1990s.

Ideally, over the long run, the state should consider doing away with the Board of Corrections and having its functions absorbed by the Department of Corrections. This would create efficiencies, simplify processes, and make critical corrections functions directly accountable to elected officials rather than insulated from any real accountability.

Arkansans have been living in the midst of a crime crisis thanks to the decisions of an unelected board of bureaucrats. It’s long past time for this broken system to be mended.

Image of the story authorHayden Dublois
Visiting Economist

Hayden Dublois is the Visiting Economist at Opportunity Arkansas. His primary research areas are welfare, health care, workforce, unemployment, and tax policy.

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Image of the story authorNicholas Horton
Founder & CEO

Nic Horton is a native Arkansan and Founder & CEO of Opportunity Arkansas. He has spent more than a decade in the conservative movement as an expert on election, disability, tax, welfare, and workforce reform.

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