Eric Higgins: A 30-Year Perspective

Pulaski County Sheriff Eric Higgins
Pulaski County Sheriff Eric Higgins

RIC HIGGINS WAS ELECTED PULASKI COUNTY SHERIFF IN 2019 AND HAD JUST BEGUN HIS SECOND TERM. HIGGINS JOINED THE LITTLE ROCK POLICE DEPARTMENT IN 1984 AND RETIRED AS ASSISTANT CHIEF. IN THIS CONVERSATION, THE SHERIFF AND PAUL CHAPMAN OF RESTORE HOPE ARKANSAS EXPLORE LESSONS AND INSIGHTS FROM HIGGINS’ THREE DECADES IN LAW ENFORCEMENT

Q

CHAPMAN: Sheriff, after more than 30 years in law enforcement, what is your definition of effective policing?

A

HIGGINS: As a society, we have to start looking at what we can do to help people be successful. How and why do people get involved in criminal activity, and how can we help them get out of it?

Taxpayers are paying for safety in our communities. What makes a citizen feel safe is having the ability to be with their family at home or at an event and not become a victim of crime. We evaluate the effectiveness of a law enforcement agency by the absence of crime, not by arrests.

It’s not just about putting people in jail. We’re going to do that; we’re going to get dangerous people off the streets. Some people need to go to jail for a long time because they are a danger to our communities, but that’s not everybody.

Q

CHAPMAN: What’s your answer to keeping these less dangerous people out of jail?

A

HIGGINS: It is important to prevent crime. How can we prevent a person from getting involved in criminal activity? How do we engage with them and help them see other opportunities? How can we partner with organizations to address issues in the community that create unsafe environments?

Crime is committed by an individual; it is caused by individual choices that people make. Individual circumstances lead people down roads that maybe they can avoid if they have other opportunities or are educated about resources available to them.

What’s going on in a person’s life? How can we divert him or her from continuing on that road? If you’ve been in law enforcement for a while, you end up seeing some of the same people. You see minor charges building to more serious charges. Sometimes people get trapped.

Q

CHAPMAN: How do we get people off that justice system treadmill?

A

HIGGINS: I think community diversion is an absolute necessity as part of the puzzle. People are caught in the system, looking for a way out, and we have to give them opportunities.

We know it’s going to save money. It costs close to $71 a day to house someone in the Pulaski County Jail. The money we spend for a counselor or caseworker to help an individual is going to be cheaper than the individual going to prison or being in and out of the county jail.

If we can connect our community resources, and direct individuals to those resources to educate and help them, we can significantly impact crime – because we’re impacting a person’s hope to succeed and do something different.

Q

CHAPMAN: Conversely, when folks start down a path in the court system, do you often see a progression in the severity of their crimes?

A

HIGGINS: Yes. Let’s say someone’s license expired or he shoplifts. It may start with minor charges, but if that person doesn’t pay his fine then there’s a warrant for his arrest. And then he goes to court, does some time in the county jail or community service, and then has another similar incident – it’s a continual cycle.

Maybe he can never get ahead because he’s paying the fines, or he gets his car towed for a traffic offense and doesn’t have the money to get the car out, so he can’t go to work and ends up losing his job. And then he is scrambling. And it could be that he loses hope. He can’t get a job because of what’s on his record and, therefore, he thinks he’s forced into more and more serious criminal activity or consistent criminal activity.

We know most people are living paycheck to paycheck and often need to provide for a family. And if we can give them resources, many won’t continue down that road.

Now, some of the time you run into individuals who aren’t ready yet. But we’ve seen individuals who’ve spent 40 years in the system and then all of a sudden they’re ready. They’re tired of what they’ve been doing for the last 40 years, and they want to do something different.

Are we willing to help them?

When you reduce crime in a community, then that leads to economic development. Then people can get jobs that pay a livable wage, so they can support their families. That supports the entire community.

So by targeting individuals who are ready to do something different, by doing good assessments and connecting them to resources, we start to create success.

When we do all these things, we will reduce crime in our state.

When you reduce crime in a community, then that leads to economic development. Then people can get jobs that pay a livable wage, so they can support their families.
ERIC HIGGINS, PULASKI COUNTY SHERIFF
Q

CHAPMAN: How would you like to see a community diversion program done?

A

HIGGINS: I’d like to see a program at a district court level run by people who are serious about what they’re doing and who have the tools to evaluate and develop a plan for each person – assessing their situations, their needs, and identifying a way for them to progress and succeed.

I want a program that tracks results so we know whether it’s successful, and that collects enough data to determine which situations are leading to success. Which ones aren’t succeeding? What are the obstacles?

A good program has connections with the right resources: for counseling, financial literacy classes, assistance getting a driver’s license back, or getting a job.

The individuals who are being diverted have to understand their own responsibilities. No one’s handing everything to them. They have to follow through with the plan that’s presented. Then the word spreads, and you have more people wanting to have opportunities for success.

Then I think the judges, prosecutors, public defenders and law enforcement buy in on it, because we all want a safer community. People expect us to ensure safety in our community. And like I said before, arrests will remain part of it. But if that’s all there is, we fail.

Q

CHAPMAN: What type of impact do you believe is possible from community diversion?

A

HIGGINS: If we provide the resources to support a good diversion program to help these individuals, I think they’ll take advantage of the opportunities, and we’ll have success.

It’s something we’ve got to do. We can’t keep doing the same thing. We’re going to build more prisons. The Pulaski County Jail at one point was about a 500-bed facility, then an 800-bed facility. Now it’s a 1,210-bed facility. And I’m housing, at the peak of summer, around 1,360 individuals in this facility.

Do I really need more space? Yes, I need a better facility; it’s old. But if I had fewer people coming in, then what could we do? What is the stress level of our employees here? You know, nowadays we’re not busting at the seams of people wanting to be in law enforcement.

Meanwhile, we’ve got to work with our kids. Every year we’re going to have a 12-year-old kid trying to figure out: Which way should I go? What are my opportunities? Do I have any? Do I need to follow whomever and start selling dope or be involved in criminal activity or doing burglaries? We’re always going to have a 12-year-old kid making those decisions. And so we’ve got to invest in them also. We’ve got to help them look up and see the opportunities they have, continually.

We evaluate the effectiveness of a law enforcement agency by the absence of crime, not by arrests.
Eric Higgins
Q

CHAPMAN: Are these same issues affecting recruiting talent into law enforcement?

A

HIGGINS: Recruiting has been very difficult; all the agencies in Pulaski County are in need.

Nationwide, people are retiring from law enforcement and fewer people want to step into this career. Being short-handed creates stress. Look at our detention center: when we’re at capacity or over capacity, it puts a strain on the individuals working here, which is a deterrent for people wanting to get in the profession.

So if there’s a way to divert people out of this system, then eventually fewer people will come into this facility, making it a better place for those who work here.

What we’re talking about is a holistic system. We don’t need to wait for people to come out of the county jail or prison before we do something to help them succeed. We’ve got to help them when they first get into the criminal justice system.

And we don’t stop there. We help keep our youth from getting into it from the beginning.

How many lives have we destroyed in the last 40 years with zero tolerance? We went in and arrested everybody. How many kids were in foster care because their parents went to prison for crack? How many kids were raised by their grandparents?

In law enforcement, we didn’t care. These kids grow up without a father, without a mom, then they got involved in criminal activities. Now it’s the third generation and we’re still locking them up.

We had a young lady a couple of years ago in the Pulaski Jail reentry program. I said to her, ‘Well, you’ve been in here for about a month. What have you learned?’ And she told me, ‘I learned that I don’t have to use drugs and I don’t have to go to jail. That’s all I saw my mom and dad do. So I thought that’s all I was supposed to do.’

She grew up thinking this was the norm. People get caught in the system and they lack hope that they can do anything different.

Smart Justice is a magazine, podcast, and continuing news coverage from the nonprofit Restore Hope and covers the pursuit of better outcomes on justice system-related issues, such as child welfare, incarceration, and juvenile justice. Our coverage is solutions-oriented, focusing on the innovative ways in which communities are solving issues and the lessons that have been learned as a result of successes and challenges. 

The podcast is available on all major podcasting platforms.

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