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Crimes committed, adult arrests and the number of sworn law enforcement officers in Pulaski County are above the national average, experts reported last week.

However, those experts said, county criminal justice professionals do certain things well and seem willing to collaborate, which could help correct what's currently a mostly "reactive" approach to a hefty jail population.

Pulaski County is paying two firms -- the JFA Institute and the Justice Management Institute -- to scrutinize the county's adult justice system. Law enforcement, the 1,210-bed jail, and the district and circuit courts are among the things being examined.

The contract is for $185,175 and was extended to the end of 2018.

Experts from those firms reported some data to the county's criminal justice coordinating committee Tuesday. Everything that was presented is still preliminary, James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, cautioned.

Austin and his colleagues spotlighted the things Pulaski County does well: Judges are collegial. The average length of stay in jail is lower than the national average. The vast majority of people locked up for any extended period of time are arrested on felony charges.

Citing that last statistic, Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner said, "I think if you just look at numbers, we're putting the right people in jail."

However, some Pulaski County sheriff's office personnel objected to the high arrest numbers, saying they're inflated. The presentation struck a sticking point when Austin mentioned how many Arkansas Department of Correction inmates are being transported to and from the Pulaski County unit.

Nationally, prison populations have declined over the past decade.

Meanwhile, Arkansas' prison population has swelled. With no space in state prisons, those inmates take up hundreds of beds every day in county jails like Pulaski's. They're responsible for a large portion of the sheriff's office's transports, the firms reported.

But that backlog, which is the state's responsibility, has been there for decades, Maj. Carl Minden of the sheriff's office said.

"That's not anything anybody in this room can fix. It's just not," he said.

"It's kind of frustrating to us," Austin said after one back-and-forth exchange. "If there's nothing we can do, why are we here?"

"We're not telling you you're wasting your time, or I'm not, anyway," Barry Hyde, Pulaski County's chief administrator, replied. The state prison backlog is always major news "until something bigger happens."

"Hopefully you'll help us with a big old spotlight to put back on the state," Hyde added.

According to data from the Arkansas Crime Information Center presented by Austin, Pulaski County has a "crimes against persons" rate more than twice the national average: slightly under 950 for every 100,000 residents. Homicide, rape, aggravated assault and robbery comprise that category, he said. The national average is around 400, Austin said.

"You have a population that's not changing very much, but you've got a crime problem that's remaining stubbornly high," Austin told the group.

Still, Austin added, "criminal justice can only do so much about crime rates." A lot of what contributes to crime has to do with other factors, like how children are raised and educated, he said.

Austin also said the number of sworn officers across the various agencies in Pulaski County, around 2,000 total, is high for the area's population. Additionally, a higher-than-average arrest rate likely goes hand in hand with the high crime rate, he said.

Maj. Matthew Briggs, who oversees county jail operations, disputed the arrest figures and questioned the crime figures mentioned during the presentation.

According to the firm, there were 30,089 adult arrests in 2016 in Pulaski County.

But that figure is inflated because of a quirk in Pulaski County's criminal justice system, Briggs said.

All cases start in district court. If they're felonies, they're "bound over" to Pulaski County Circuit Court. When that happens, those felony charges are often served by the sheriff's office through something called a bench warrant.

So it appears in the data like a new arrest from the sheriff's office, but really the charges and original arrest stem from a local police agency, Briggs said.

Chastity Scifres, a county attorney, said the value is in the trend line. Between 2009 to 2016, total adult arrests have stayed relatively flat.

"I won't say it's stable," Austin told the group. "But it's not growing upward in a steady trend."

Another focus of the presentation was the population the jail handles. About a third of all people who go through the jail are "cited out," or given a paper slip with a court date, without having to spend much time incarcerated.

That process can be expensive, Austin said. And because of such policies, the jail has been able to keep the population artificially low, he said.

If such stopgaps were taken away, the jail would need an additional couple hundred beds to handle its average daily population on the worst days, said Wendy Naro Ware, vice president of the JFA Institute.

One suggestion Austin mentioned was to look into having police officers issue misdemeanor citations in the field so those people aren't taken to jail at all. It's something law enforcement officials already do for certain types of charges.

"Doesn't that just massage the number instead of solve the problem?" Briggs asked.

Austin responded by saying that most jails don't want crowded booking areas.

"I want an actual solution instead of massaging the numbers," Briggs said.

Tim Dibble, vice president of the Justice Management Institute, stressed that the firms' job is to take a "systemwide viewpoint." The process of meeting with people in Pulaski County is far from over, Dibble said.

He also mentioned the strengths and weaknesses of the adult court system. Felony cases that involve people in jail are often taken care of quickly, he said.

However, there is a backlog of cases older than a year, which indicates "the cases that are jailed are getting all the pressure to get resolved quickly," he said.

After reviewing and clarifying the data, both institutes will work with county officials to create recommendations before the end of 2018.

"We have places we've gone to, and they have criminal justice coordinating committees, and they don't pay any attention to what we say," Austin told the officials in the room. "It's up to you."

"We're not going to change Pulaski County," he added. "Only you can change Pulaski County."

A Section on 05/21/2018

Print Headline: County hears experts' data on justice system

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