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story.lead_photo.caption File photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/STACY RYBURN The Washington County Courthouse is seen July 27 in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County's justices of the peace on Tuesday recommended earmarking $100,000 to study the county's criminal justice system.

The Finance/Budget Committee instructed Brian Lester, county attorney, to draft an ordinance for the June 20 Quorum Court meeting indicating it's intention to pay for the study.

What’s next

Washington County’s justices of the peace will continue their discussion of having a study done the criminal justice system and recommend ways to reduce the number of detainees held at the jail when the Quorum Court meets at 6 p.m. June 20 in the Quorum Court meeting room of the County Courthouse, 280 N. College Ave. in Fayetteville.

Source: Staff report

"If we find we need to change the amount, we can do so next Thursday," Ann Harbison, committee chairwoman and justice of the peace for District 14 in the southern part of the county, said of the amount proposed for the study.

The Jail/Law Enforcement/Courts Committee voted Monday to put off indefinitely expanding the Washington County Detention Center and instead pursue alternatives to incarceration as a means of reducing overcrowding in the jail. That panel sent to the Finance/Budget Committee a recommendation justices of the peace ask County Judge Joseph Wood to put out a request for qualifications for companies to study the justice system and set an amount the county would be willing to pay for the work.

Sheriff Tim Helder asked the Quorum Court last year to consider a $38 million plan to expand the jail. Under the plan, voters would be asked to approve the expansion and a half-percent sales tax to pay for construction. The proposal also asked voters to approve a quarter-percent sales tax to pay jail operating and maintenance costs. The jail operating budget is supplemented by about $1.4 million from the general fund.

Helder said the crowded conditions at the jail are growing worse and something needs to be done soon. He said there have been as many as 100 people at the facility in recent weeks sleeping on the floor or being held in the booking area for lack of proper bed space in the detention areas.

Harbison introduced the motion to have the Finance/Budget Committee agree on an acceptable price and ask Wood to request qualifications for a company to study the system. The study would take about a year to complete, Harbison said at a County Services Committee meeting June 3. At Monday's meeting, Harbison said a cost of $150,000 for the study has been discussed.

"It's in the ballpark," Harbison said of the $100,000 agreed to Tuesday. "It could be less or it could be more."

Harvey Bowman, justice of the peace for District 3 in Springdale, said the Quorum Court needs to act quickly on getting the study done. Bowman pointed out the problem has been discussed for a number of years, telling the newer justices of the peace Helder brought a video to a Quorum Court meeting more than two years ago showing how a Sheriff's Office employee was injured in an attack by an inmate.

"Jail overcrowding is a serious issue," Bowman said. "This has been discussed a long time. I'd like to see us move as quickly as possible on this."

Butch Pond, justice of the peace for District 15 in eastern Washington County, agreed the study needed to be done quickly.

"I don't want to see Washington County wind up with a severe bodily injury incident in our jail," Pond said. "With the overcrowding, our employees can't monitor the situation properly."

Pond said that, because the justices of the peace rejected the proposed jail expansion, they now have the duty to find another solution.

"It's going to be on us if we don't get something done about the jail," Pond said.

NW News on 06/12/2019

Print Headline: County officials OK $100,000 for justice system study

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