Slow wheel of justice costs county money

Posted: November 7, 2017 at 1 a.m.

FILE PHOTO ANTHONY REYES - Inmates inside the Washington County Jail in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Felony cases are moving too slowly through the Washington County Circuit Court -- a problem that is costing taxpayers millions of dollars, justices of the peace said Monday.

"The tab gets pretty expensive when you talk about this problem," said Justice of the Peace Joel Maxwell, a Republican representing western Washington County.

Statewide issue

Washington County is not alone in its struggle to lower the number of jail inmates who have not been to trial. Pulaski County has about 1,200 inmates, two-thirds of which are awaiting trial. “Just note that we’re not alone,” said Matt Durrett, Washington County prosecuting attorney.

Source: Staff report

Maxwell is chairman of the Jail, Law Enforcement and Courts Committee. The committee scrutinized Monday problems within the jail and legal system that will cost the county $2 million this year. The prosecuting attorney, public defender, circuit judges and sheriff plan to meet and discuss ways to improve the situation, he said.

"I think we can work together to speed some of these cases up," Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett said.

Justices of the peace are struggling with a $68 million budget with a $5 million gap between spending and expected revenue next year. Washington County plans to move about $2 million from its general fund to cover costs incurred at the jail but that will reduce reserve to $4 million from $6 million.

The budget must be approved by Dec. 31.

The problems are expected to persist. Two-thirds of the 687 inmates at the jail Monday have not been convicted -- meaning the county is left paying for housing them. One inmate costs about $62 to house daily.

A conviction can take months or longer, Durrett said.

The Arkansas State Crime Laboratory is backlogged and can take months to return results, Durrett said.

The number of felony cases jumped 20 percent this year over last year. One circuit judge handles 75 percent of the criminal cases and one other handles 25 percent, but 3,180 cases have been filed so far this year alone, Durrett said. Cases are regularly continued, Maxwell said.

Mental evaluations also can take months, and homicide cases, by nature, take longer to prosecute. Durrett has 11 open homicide cases pending, he said.

Even lower bonds haven't helped. People who bail out on a low bond often are picked up again in connection with new crimes and for not appearing for court dates, Durrett said.

Maxwell pointed out the county doesn't have much control over some aspects.

The rise in cases is linked to a growth in population. And, the state must decide whether to grant the county another judge, for example, Maxwell said. The next state fiscal session to fund a new judge isn't until 2019. If cases spike again, then the caseload would be "unmanageable" by that time, Durrett said.

At the same time, the state pressures prosecutors to avoid sending people to prison, Durrett said.

"It's an interesting problem," said Tom Lundstrum, a Republican representing northwestern Washington County. "I don't know how to solve it."

Other options brought up were: diversion programs, religious and work programs, ankle bracelets, daily fees for cities to help cover costs, private labs for evidence and ways to stop the spread of opioid abuse to curb crime. Maxwell said the Quorum Court also could look at manpower needs.

"We're trying to figure out specific problems, that's what I'm doing now," Durrett said. "Trying to find specific problems that can be fixed. I'm eager to do whatever I can to get the process to move forward."

NW News on 11/07/2017