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Faced with a crowded jail, Washington County's Jail/Law Enforcement/Courts Committee made the right decision.

Last week, its members voted 4-2 to reject the notion that the only way out of a crowded jail is more beds. Rather than recommending that citizens approve a proposed $38 million expansion of their current jail -- which is the recommendation of the architect/builder -- the committee thoughtfully decided to secure the services of someone qualified to assess the criminal justice system as it operates in Washington County. That assessment won't be limited to the sheriff's operation of the jail, but also include practices of law enforcement generally at county and city levels, the prosecutor's office, public defenders, private attorneys and the district and circuit judges.

We have all heard "the devil is in the details." Certainly, that is where work gets done and problems get addressed creatively. Let me share alternatives worth considering that would be less costly and even make the community safer while reducing the number of persons coming into the jail:

  1. Immediately form a collaborative criminal justice coordinating committee. Either include community members as a part of the committee or form a community advisory group that could fully participate and contribute. This is the key to developing a myriad of incremental steps to help the county take a leadership role in reducing over-incarceration policies.

  2. At the law enforcement (city/county) and prosecutor level, work to implement pre-diversion programs that function in lieu of an arrest.

  3. At the city and county level, intentionally develop policies that encourage the expanded use of citation release at a first encounter with law enforcement and develop financial incentives that do not reward over-incarceration decisions.

  4. Work with the prosecutor to encourage expanded use of summons to appear in court for select felony cases in lieu of an arrest warrant.

  5. Allow judges to have multiple options of providing community service as an outcome for a case rather than jail time (even where the offense is "contempt of court").

  6. Avoid imposition of fines and fee on already impoverished folks, which simply sets them up for probation violation and reincarceration.

  7. With more than half of inmates being pre-trial detainees, consider the hiring of a jail ombudsman -- someone charged with interviewing pre-trial detainees and making evidence-based recommendations for "own recognizance" release or "conditions" and reduced-bail release. Data tell us that a pre-trial detainee who is unable to obtain release early on (within as few as three days) will more than likely have more severe adverse outcomes -- both from criminal justice (lengthier sentence) and impact to family (housing, employment, child custody) and even recidivism rates. Reject continued detention based solely on the poverty status of the individual charged.

  8. The county's veterans and drug court dockets both have excellent outcomes when compared to the state's recidivism rate, but they are understaffed and often there is a lag-time of several months of incarceration before the inmate is "getting treatment." Implement corrective policy changes and provide additional staffing.

  9. Provide an additional staff attorney to the public defender's office at first appearances, which would greatly improve efficient handling of cases and reduce need for pre-trial beds.

  10. Also, for the public defender's office, provide funding for a social worker position(s) that would allow the attorneys to focus on the legal representation while a qualified person is helping to coordinate services need. This would expedite finding holistic outcomes for clients (thereby reducing recidivism).

  11. Consider that the jail population includes persons who have pled guilty to a felony and are awaiting transport to Department of Corrections, contingent on a state prison bed being available. A significant number of these persons have demonstrated they can be trusted to come to court and are ready to accept their punishment. Many can be safely allowed to remain on their original appearance bonds with the cooperation of the court and prosecutor.

  12. Currently, it would seem that the county's reaction to failure to appears (FTA's) may be worth reassessing. We should remind ourselves that almost none of these folks have "absconded" (i.e., fled the jurisdiction of the court to avoid prosecution). They simply missed the appointed date to be in court. They often still work and live at same place when they were arrested. A large dose of empathy is in order and patience, especially when we consider the research that tells us poverty impedes cognitive function for some. Do we really need them behind bars to make our point?

  13. There may be a sizable population in custody facing potential probation revocation, not due to new felony conduct but technical violations of probation. This is a population that deserves a closer look as well and can succeed with assistance.

  14. Further, as to the Northwest Arkansas crime lab soon opening, there is the expectation that the long delays in getting back lab results for drug charges will be shortened, which should make the charging process more efficient -- freeing up beds sooner.

  15. The long-awaited opening of the mental health crisis stabilization unit should give some relief by avoiding jail for those in the midst of a psychotic episode.

Finally, what Washington County needs now more than anything is for the community to raise your hands high. Let County Judge Joseph Wood know that you want to help develop the type of programs necessary to genuinely implement alternatives to incarceration.

Commentary on 06/17/2019

Print Headline: The search for jail alternatives

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