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Sooner or later, every county with fast population growth will have to ask itself a question: How do we handle the growing demand for jail space?

It's not something anyone really wants to face. We'd love to believe all the newcomers are upstanding citizens who volunteer in the schools, pay their taxes, go to church every Sunday and never drive more than five miles per hour over the speed limit.

What’s the point?

The demand for more jail space in Washington County — and Benton County, for that matter — is unlikely to shrink significantly enough to avoid the need for expansion.

With growth, expansions of law enforcement, first responders, the courts and jails have traditionally been viewed as necessities. People in Washington County are pondering expansion, which has been a major concern of Sheriff Tim Helder for years. People in Benton County are beginning to ask that question, as Sheriff Shawn Holloway's staff sees the trend for the not-so-distant future.

"We're turning away people -- nonviolent misdemeanors," said Benton County jail Capt. Jeremy Guyll. "We are often pushing the maximum number of inmates."

In Washington County, Helder has told the Quorum Court his staff is already dumping about 200 misdemeanor inmates back onto the streets as quickly as they can and they still end up with inmates sleeping on the floors of the jail.

Back in Benton County, discussions have even turned to the possibility of "mobile pods," which are constructed by placing semitrailers side by side and fusing them into one facility for housing inmates. Sure, that's not where you'd want to put a capital murder suspect, but, the theory goes, some of those charged with misdemeanors could do their time there.

That's no permanent solution, but it could be a cheaper short-term solution until Benton County officials figure out a plan for more permanent jail space or some other solution to jail crowding.

In Washington County, some residents in recent months have opposed expansion of the jail in south Fayetteville, urging county leaders instead to find alternatives within the criminal justice system. Those alternatives all focus on approaches in which people who violate the law or those awaiting trail for violating the law would be more likely to avoid jail.

Those advocates are not wrong to acknowledge that the circumstances leading to crimes are not always simple, so the response to criminality shouldn't be oversimplified, either. Rather, they suggest, the criminal justice system needs to take into account the factors that contribute to people committing crimes and find ways to address those factors rather then just penning people up in a concrete warehouse.

Once upon a time, such suggestions -- lowering or elimination of bonds, treatment of substance abuse problems --would have been followed by cries of going "soft on crime."

Maybe some of this new justice steers close to being soft on crime, but not all of it. Last week, local and state officials dedicated the Northwest Arkansas Regional Crisis Stabilization Unit, where officers and medical professionals trained to spot evidence of mental illness can take people in need. It keeps them out of jail when and if treatment provides a far more likely solution to the trouble they causing for themselves and others. ""We can bring them here instead of criminalizing their illness," Helder said last week.

Helder has been a strong advocate for the Crisis Stabilization Unit, and he's spent years juggling community expectations that the commission of a crime deserves punishment vs. the space he has at the jail. What he's testified to is how those expectations cannot be maintained without serious change, and in his evaluation, more space for inmates is part of the equation.

Faced with the challenge, members of the Washington County Quorum Court had the answer: Let's do a study. The Jail/Law Enforcement/Courts Committee voted last week to put off indefinitely any plans for expanding the jail and instead pursue alternatives to incarceration as a means to reduce crowding at the jail. A day later, the Finance Committee recommended earmarking $100,000 to study the county's criminal justice system.

The county has an expert advising them, and his name is Tim Helder. We think the justices of the peace would do well to listen to him. He's as level-headed a sheriff as they come, and he doesn't push for something just for political kicks or because he's some Joe Arpaio type who wants to throw everyone under the jail. His performance as sheriff has shown he's dependable and moderate. He's earned the respect to be listened to.

Expanding the jail is a tough decision, so the Quorum Court will spend $100,000 at least to avoid making that call right now. We hope the Quorum Court's approach, expected to take a year of study, is wildly successful in finding new ways to approach criminal justice, particularly ones that don't forego deserved punishment or don't contribute to higher crime rates.

But our bet is none of them will eliminate the need for more jail space to serve a growing Washington County population.

Commentary on 06/18/2019

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