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Washington County's ongoing debate over crowded conditions at its jail is in a sort of holding pattern. County leaders have put their bets on studies of alternative sentencing, bail reform and any other ideas that might, in their eyes, preclude a costly need to expand the jail. Meanwhile, Sheriff Tim Helder continues to plead for additional space for incarceration.

Quorum Court members are, however, talking about the possibility of a tax increase, oddly enough, that has nothing to do with resolving the jail crowding. This week, the County Services Committee endorsed a proposal to put a bond issue for a new radio system on the March 3 primary election. If approved, a one-quarter percent sales tax would raise $10 million over one year, according to county estimates. The tax proposal would include a "sunset" clause providing that the tax will end when the money for the bond issue is collected.

What’s the point?

It seems ludicrous for Washington County leaders to ponder a ballot question for a new tax that does nothing to help resolve its jail overcrowding.

We don't mean to diminish the need for a county radio system that may total as much as $8.5 million. But to pursue a tax question on the ballot without including any jail crowding seems entirely short-sighted.

Helder has spent the last couple of years pitching a 600-bed expansion at a cost estimate at $38 million, but has gained little traction. More recently, he's asked the Quorum Court to consider a shorter-term solution of building a 200-bed minimum security facility while expanding the intake and booking capacity. That's a $4 million to

$6 million capital project, but it would also require some source of ongoing funding for hiring more personnel to operate it.

Jail crowding has been and is the biggest challenge facing the county these days, unless one counts the Quorum Court's dysfunction in addressing its year-to-year budgetary needs. It seems ludicrous to take a tax proposal to the public that doesn't factor in the jail needs in the least. A public willing to approve one tax increase proposal isn't likely to be ready to approve another one for years.

The Quorum Court appears to be placing its faith in the capacity for alternative sentencing and bail reform to eliminate the need for extra jail

space.

Advocates for that approach aren't wrong in seeking a system that

doesn't just throw people in jail. Undoubtedly, with a conscientious effort to identify inmates willing to address the behaviors or demons that under-gird their law-breaking behaviors, programs designed to set their lives on a better track can make a difference. It is in everyone's interest that the judicial system create opportunities for motivated people to emerge from their run-ins with law enforcement and the courts ready to contribute to a better world, or at least to not make it worse.

We don't fault those working toward this end. Our glasses simply aren't quite as rose-colored as theirs, which might reflect deserved criticism for their view or for ours. Nevertheless, given the overcrowding at the jail, little from the alternative sentencing or eliminating bail camps suggests those to be powerful enough to dig Washington County out of its jail capacity ills.

The pressures on the county jail are too varied and strong.

Yes, federal authorities and Madison County pay Washington County to house inmates, most of them originating from this area, not bused in from New Jersey or other long-distance locales. Could those inmates be booted to make room for the county's needs? Absolutely, but they represent millions of dollars in revenue that help reduce the demand on Washington County's general tax revenue. If they go, so does the revenue, and a big hole is blown into the jail's budget. Can Washington County afford to make that up from general revenue? Have you been paying attention to the gnashing of teeth as the Quorum Court hobbles through its budget planning for next year? The county doesn't have big piles of cash sitting around.

In addition to those inmates, one can't ignore that the county jail has absorbed the inmates booked by the city of Fayetteville, which closed its jail, and will early next year absorb the inmates from Springdale as that city closes its jail. With today's high expectations for inmate treatment plus the litigation and federal oversight that arises from shortcomings, large county jails will carry more of the incarceration burden.

Also, we're fairly sure the population growth of the region isn't likely to cease. The reality is more space and alternative sentencing options will need to work hand in hand to meet the criminal justice needs of Washington County.

Unfortunately, Washington County has chosen to bury its head in the sand on the jail expansion. Members of the Quorum Court are either (1) adamantly committed to staying clear from virtually any tax increase or (2) adamantly committed to the idea that jail crowding will be resolved by alternative sentencing and no-bail programs.

It's going to demand both approaches over the next 10, 20 and 30 years. Programs designed to keep people out of jail will take years to fully develop to their full effect. That is, if the county's leadership can accomplish the challenge of funding and coordinating the many aspects of treatment, counseling and monitoring it will require. And if ground were to be broken today on a large-scale jail expansion, that would take considerable time, too, before the new space would be available.

Will voters back a new radio system that's undoubtedly needed? Maybe, but we think they're wondering the same thing we are: If jail overcrowding is a crisis, why in the world would an election focus on a radio system and exclude anything related to the jail?

Commentary on 11/09/2019

Print Headline: A tax for what?

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