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"I'm blown away by how critical the need is but also intimidated by the expense."

-- Harvey Bowman, Washington County justice of the peace

What’s the point?

Washington County’s jail has reached the point at which expansion is a necessity.

The Republican justice of the peace from Springdale last month pretty well captured the political situation with the Washington County jail. Statistically, in just about every way one examines the jail's population trends, it's time to add a "pod" onto the jail in south Fayetteville that opened in 2005 with 710 beds.

All those celebrated measures of population growth for Northwest Arkansas? Well, nobody's going to celebrate this one, but more people living in a county usually -- and in this case, actually -- means more people for the county jail.

Consider this: The Washington County jail is, right now, releasing about 200 inmates a month who would normally be kept behind bars (or doors, in modern-day jails). The jail population keeps bumping up against the maximum number of people it can hold, even with those releases. For the last two years, the state's annual jail standards review has remarked that the inmate population has been outpacing the facility's capacity. That's what one calls a warning flag.

Jim Langford, an architect working with the county to evaluate its jail options, last month told justices of the peace many factors contribute in small ways to the jail's capacity crunch: lengths of stays, Fayetteville closing its jail, convicted felons left in the jail by the state until there's room in prisons and federal prisoners.

But none of those are primarily responsible for the crowded jail. The vast majority of people populating the jail are the exact people county jails are needed to house: inmates who are awaiting trail on serious felony charges who cannot afford to provide the bail money that assures they will show up for their day in court.

The number of cases continues to rise, and that means more inmates. As long as the local population continues to grow, the demand for jail space will, too.

"Washington County is growing quickly. This is what's driving the boat," Langley said.

These conditions didn't happen overnight. Consider this comment from Sheriff Tim Helder back in the fall of 2007, more than a decade ago.

"We've got overcrowding issues looming," Helder said then. "We are at or near capacity in the jail we just moved into 21/2 years ago."

Helder has been sending that signal for years, but has recognized the expansion is a big ask. Delaying the expansion in the county's capacity to hold inmates is no longer a realistic option.

The jail, which the sheriff operates, was built in such a way that expansion is easy. In fact, there's room for up to four pod additions, and a pod can add either 250 or 500 beds, depending on whether it's a single or double layer pod. So the good news is decisions of county leaders in the past have positioned the county well for expansions that can cover needs for decades. But each expansion requires millions for construction, and it's up to today's county leaders to decide what the future of law enforcement and judicial options will look like in Washington County.

The existing jail cost $22 million when it was built 13 years ago. Last week, a committee of justices of the peace advised Sheriff Helder to bring a $30 million proposal to expand the jail to the Nov. 15 Quorum Court meeting. That's what's anticipated to build 500 new beds in the jail and 100 minimum security beds.

The current proposal, if supported by voters, would raise the countywide sales tax by a half percent to pay for construction. After construction is paid for -- probably about 18 months or so -- half of that tax would expire. The remaining quarter-cent tax would remain to provide funding to operate and maintain the larger jail.

Last year, operation of the jail required an infusion of about $400,000 from the county's general fund, according to Helder.

Is it a certainty that voters will be asked to approve that package? No. So far, only the Jail/Law Enforcement/Courts Committee of the Quorum Court has provided some backing. County Judge Joseph Wood has said he'd like to explore other options but does not have a specific alternative proposal he advocates. Exploring cooperation with others who need inmate space -- a regional jail, a women's facility with another county -- are the types of ideas Wood raises. He said the decision ultimately will rest with the Quorum Court.

We'd bet most members of the Quorum Court feel exactly like Harvey Bowman. It's hard not to.

Jailing inmates is one of the most basic services county government provides. No extravagances. Nothing fancy. The question is the extent that a county will give its law enforcement and judicial system the capacity to deal with lawbreakers effectively. Criminals, we suspect, will be content if the county's leaders or voters reject an expansion.

Commentary on 11/05/2018

Print Headline: Not-so-good growth

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