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When a sheriff starts turning away from the county jail people accused of breaking the law, it might be a sign that political leadership within county government is failing.

County residents, which includes those living in cities and in rural areas, don't ask much of their county governments when it comes right down to it. Keep county roads decently smooth, provide some law enforcement help if things get out of hand, put law-breakers in jail and, for the most part, stay out of our business. Do those things well and a lot of county residents will be satisfied that their county government is doing what it needs to do.

In Washington County, longtime Sheriff Tim Helder last week announced crowding at the county jail will force him to limit the number of prisoners he'll accept. The situation, which he's been warning County Judge Joseph Wood and the 15-member Quorum Court about for years now, has reached levels critical enough to cap the number of inmates the sheriff will allow to be brought through the doors.

The jail holds county inmates, but also those brought by smaller cities and the city of Fayetteville. The city of Springdale has its own jail, but officials there have said they plan to close it in the near future and rely on the county jail.

The Quorum Court has talked a lot about the jail's crowded conditions. And talked. And talked. Quorum Court members have embraced the concept that alternative means of punishment, diversion or treatment might relieve the county of the need to expand the jail. So far, there's been little evidence they've achieved much of anything to resolve crowding. And now, with the sheriff's announcement, we have the clearest example of how the county's leadership favors law-breakers and fails to live up to their obligations to deliver basic services to the people they represent.

In other words, all this dilly-dallying around is not in the interest of community safety within Washington County.

We don't suggest creative ideas for alternative sentencing or treatment should be abandoned. They have value. But Washington County's population isn't getting smaller. Demand for jail space will grow, not shrink. And the sheriff can't legally just keep stuffing people into a jail that's undersized.

Where's that leave things? The situation is what the Quorum Court and the county judge have decided to be acceptable.

Remember that.

Commentary on 10/19/2019

Print Headline: Letting inmates go

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