According to The Arkansas News, the Arkansas prison system is bursting at the seams.  14,200 prisoners have been stuffed into state prison facilities that can only accommodate 13,000 — and another 1,600 state prisoners are locked up in county facilities.  Things have gotten so dire that Arkansas is now looking into shipping some prisoners to open prison beds in northern Louisiana.

Last week, however, Governor Mike Beebe floated a different idea: rather than searching for more prison space outside Arkansas, why not ask whether the space within Arkansas is being properly prioritized?  “Save the beds for the rapists, the armed robbers and the people who are violent, as well as the more-severe drug offenders,” Beebe told sheriffs today. “Save the beds for the people who need to be there a long time, or in some cases forever.”

If prison beds are reserved for truly violent criminals, then what happens to the non-violent ones?  Gov. Beebe believes that they could be placed under probation, with reasonable supervision and requirements to work for the state (picking up trash, painting public buildings, etc.) on the weekends.  “We need to tell offenders,” said Beebe, “Support your family five days a week, but give us the other two days a week.”

Beebe’s ideas, if properly implemented, would save money for Arkansas taxpayers, they would allow non-violent offenders to keep providing for their families, and they would even allow offenders a better opportunity to pay restitution to their victims.  (Research from the Texas Public Policy Foundation has found that probationers are 98 times more likely to pay restitution.)

Most importantly, though, Beebe believes that all these benefits can be realized with no detriment to public safety. “Whatever we do,” the governor said, “we have to protect public safety first, but let’s do that in a very smart way.”