You Can't Have Your Cake and Eat it Too
You can’t have your cake and eat it too
When I was a kid, my parents always said, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”. Back then I thought it only applied to real cake. Little did I know they were preparing me for all of those tough decisions that come with trade-offs and not so easy answers. I was curious about the saying’s origin and discovered it was first used in 1538 by Thomas Howard, (Duke of Norfolk) to Thomas Cromwell (chief minister to King Henry VIII), “a man cannot have his cake and eat his cake.”
So nearly five hundred years later, how does this saying apply? You can’t have your cake (safety in our communities) and eat it too (I’m not willing to vote for funding to ensure the safety of my community).
Consider this logic:
We all want safety, but safety comes at a cost
What contributes to the cost of public safety?
Holding people who choose to break the law accountable for their actions, which means:
Tougher sentences (without benefit of parole) to deter potential law breakers
Additional prison facilities to ensure that those law breakers who ignore the consequences are actually punished for their crimes
Additional parole officers to ensure that those criminals who are judged worthy of parole honor the conditions of their parole
Education and rehabilitation
Equip parolees and inmates who have served their time to avoid becoming repeat offenders
Break the drug addiction that causes someone to commit a crime
If we want the public service of safety, we have to be willing to fund the government entities that can provide the service.
It is election time and it amazes me how many candidates (even before they have had an opportunity to truly understand the complexity of an issue) are promising to be tough on crime and promise to solve the prison and county jail overcrowding (having your cake) while campaigning to cut taxes (and eating it too). You can’t have it both ways.
Government exists for only one reason which is to provide services to the public. Those services are paid for by our tax dollars. While I consider myself to be a conservative and don’t believe the answer is to continually increase taxes, I do expect to drive on good roads and to feel my that my family is well-protected.
If you are interested in understanding why public safety is complicated and expensive, please continue reading.
The Path to Prison
When a person is sentenced to prison they will likely be housed in a County Jail until there is an available bed at the State Prison. In 2011, The Arkansas Legislature passed the “Prison Reform Bill” Act 570. Its intent was to reduce prison overcrowding in Arkansas. There were many parts to the legislation, but basically it reduced the penalty for most drug and theft offenses, made it easier for state inmates to make parole and became the preferred option to put someone on probation rather than sentencing them to prison for non-violent offenses. Because it was expected that there would be more parolees, a promise was made to provide more personnel and funding for the Department of Community Corrections to supervise the people on probation more closely.
Act 570 – Working?
Even though I was not a proponent, initially it appeared that Act 570 was working. Many more law breakers were being put on probation instead of being sent to prison; hence, the prison overcrowding was being reduced.
But there were consequences. In my community, citizens were outraged at the number of law breakers who in their opinion were getting a mere slap on the hand for breaking the law (probation instead of a prison sentence). Law enforcement officials and Probation Officers were complaining that no additional funds were passed by the legislators to hire more probation officers -- the consequence being that many of the probationers were not being sanctioned until they had violated the terms of their probation multiple times. Additionally, inmates were being released from prison with early parole, but again no additional funds were allocated.
There was a case in Baxter County that illustrates the consequence of the lack of funding. We had a female inmate who had been in our jail more than twenty times, had previously served time in prison, was sent back to the technical violators program for violation of her parole, was again revoked and sent back to prison. She was released on parole 13 days after we transported her to prison.
With the changes, the inmate backlog in county jails across the state decreased significantly over the next couple of years. The backlog went from around 1500 to 300. With the state paying $28 per day to the counties, the dramatic decrease caused some Sheriffs who manage the larger county jails to complain about the reduced revenue from the state for housing the inmates; even the small to medium county jails saw decreased revenues from the State.
Underfunded and Overworked Probation Officers
On the surface, the decreased inmate population appeared to be a positive outcome, but there was also a negative effect. Over a period of just a few years, law enforcement saw a dramatic increase in property crimes, with the largest number of offenders being ‘repeat’ offenders. I listened time and again as law enforcement officials complained about how many offenders were still walking the street. This trend continued across the state until a parolee, who arguably should have had his parole revoked and have been locked up, committed murder.
This tragedy brought to the public’s attention the pain that law enforcement officials had been feeling for a long time. The vast majority of probation and parole officers were being grossly overworked with a case load that is unmanageable. In Arkansas, the average case load for a parole/probation officer is over 100 with many trying to oversee more than 130. By the time court time is factored in, it is virtually impossible to properly supervise all of their people on parole. Parolees know there is a lack of supervision and take advantage of the situation.
Next, tougher enforcement
At the request of some of the legislators and law enforcement officials, the Department of Corrections Board of Directors changed their policies and started cracking down on parolees who violated their terms and conditions. This meant there were more arrests and more paroles being revoked. In the beginning, it was met with high praise. I heard more than one official and legislator say it was “about time” they cracked down.
The praise soon turned into complaints as more and more people had their parole revoked. Revocation hearings became backlogged and the county jails started filling up once again with people with new charges and those who had been revoked but were awaiting a hearing. The prisons were full and could not keep up with the increase.
Many county jails became so full that inmates were literally stacked on top of each other. The jail staff was put at risk managing inmates beyond their jail plan capacity. Many of the same law enforcement officials and Legislators who originally complained at the lack of supervision and enforcement were now complaining at too many being violated and their parole revoked. Guess what? You can’t have it both ways.
The Cost of Cracking Down
The Governor and the Arkansas Department of Corrections Board recognized that with the number of parole and probation violations increasing along with more people being sentenced to prison, something had to be done to keep our communities safe. During this legislative session, the Governor presented a budget to fund the additional backlog costs owed to the counties, open up several hundred additional beds that were already constructed and to fund the first phase, called a study, to develop architectural plans and a site survey for a new prison.
Many of the same legislators, who were complaining about lack of supervision of parolees and lack of career criminals being locked up, were the same ones who voted against the proposal and funded only half of the jail backlog funds needed, which will ultimately hurt all of the Sheriff’s Offices in Arkansas, and did not vote to fund the study to ease prison overcrowding.
All of this cutting and yet over $100 million in surplus funds were left sitting unbudgeted. Guess what? You can’t have it both ways.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too
You want me and the other voters to vote and support you because you have common sense and claim you have the experience and ability to solve problems and to work together to get things done. In my opinion, anyone who pledges or makes promises using words like ‘always’ or ‘never’ when campaigning tells me they do not have common sense, that they will not look at each issue before them, that their vote has been decided before they ever hear the issue. Don’t just tell me anything to try and get my vote, tell me the truth.
Let’s talk about providing the essential services, talk about keeping the career criminals locked up and our communities safe. Let’s have honest dialogue and then talk about cutting taxes. Guess what? You can’t have your cake and eat it too!
Sheriff John Montgomery