By all appearances, Pulaski County municipalities are getting a good deal on how much they are paying for inmates in the jail.
According to data collected by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, taking a four-day average of jail inmates with holds for municipalities, Pulaski County is footing most of the bill for the jail's inmates.
If the cities were responsible for paying the entire calculated cost of $64.70 per day to keep each inmate in the jail, then most would be paying almost four times as much as they did during 2020, according to the averages taken.
County Judge Barry Hyde said the goal has been to adjust the cities to a per diem rate rather than the one-time figure they have been paying. The county intends to put the cities on a per diem rate at the beginning of 2022, though that rate could be negotiable because of the continuing covid-19 pandemic.
"The law now says that we can recover reasonable costs," Hyde said. "If legislative audit looks into it and says it's $64 and some change, and internally we've examined and found it's $64 and some change per prisoner per day, that ought to be the amount we can charge those cities because it's the actual cost."
Central Arkansas municipalities have been paying a fixed amount per year, which has been steadily climbing with a 25% increase over the past two years, according to Hyde. Little Rock paid the most, with $2 million being spent in 2020, while Cammack Village paid less than $1,000.
From Dec. 16 to Dec. 19, according to the jail's roster, Little Rock averaged 335.25 inmates on hold in the jail while Maumelle averaged 15.25. Wrightsville and Cammack Village did not have any inmates on hold in the jail during that span.
More than one municipality may have a hold on an inmate over various violations, meaning the municipalities would not foot the entire bill for that inmate daily under a per diem rate. This is one of the reasons Hyde said the amount each city is paying now would be closer to a third of their rate in a per diem system.
"I think that it is actually at least a third, maybe up to a half of what they'll be paying if they have the same number of folks coming into the jail once we go to per diem," Hyde said.
Pulaski County municipalities are not responsible for all the inmates in the jail. Some have been picked up on Pulaski County warrants or those of outside-the-county jurisdictions. Many are state, federal or county prisoners, depending on the type of crime committed.
"Some of those folks are state that the cities aren't paying for," Hyde said. "Some of the folks are federal prisoners that the cities aren't paying for. Some of those are county prisoners."
Hyde said he believes that, once a person arrested by a municipality is formally charged with a non-municipal charge, that person becomes a county prisoner, with the county being responsible for the cost.
County Attorney Adam Fogleman cited the 2018 Arkansas Supreme Court decision of Mississippi County v. City of Blytheville, when the court determined the municipality held fiscal responsibility for the prisoners until a charging on a felony offense, sentencing on a misdemeanor offence or a release of a municipal-ordinance violation.
Fogleman said rules for the state's responsibility came later on.
"An inmate becomes the responsibility of the state when sentenced and committed to the Arkansas Division of Corrections or Division of Community Corrections by a circuit judge," Fogleman said.
With those ideas in mind, Little Rock would most likely end up paying nearly $6 million under a per diem rate.
The smallest cities in the county, Cammack Village and Wrightsville, would only be able to hold any inmates they have for a couple weeks or just over a month, respectively, before their per diem costs surpassed the current 2020 fee.
Hyde's plan for 2021 was to again increase the paying rate for the cities by 25% so that in 2022, the municipalities would pay the per diem cost. With the pandemic's hit on the local economy, however, Hyde agreed to a 3% increase with the municipalities, including quarterly reviews.
"With covid, they're not picking up many of the fees they normally collect for renting a pavilion or fines that people are fined," Hyde said. "A lot of that is way off. Even though the cities think we should keep those prisoners for free, we're not going to do that, and they know they aren't going to do that. They are still our partners in Pulaski County, and I don't think that it's beneficial to the county or anyone if we pile on, so to speak."
The transition process for the cities to a per diem rate has been interrupted by the pandemic's effect on the economy, but the plan still holds, according to Hyde.
"I anticipate, and what I told them in our annual meeting is, that we will go to per diem next year," Hyde said.
Hyde said he hopes new software the sheriff's office will have in operation will be able to calculate how much each municipality owes, so that the cities can be shown ahead of time how much they will be responsible for paying the county.
"We're still waiting on the sheriff to get their software straightened out so that they can provide the data for a month of billings," Hyde said.
When the Pulaski County Quorum Court approved the per diem "backstop" in case talks with the municipalities fell through, Justice of the Peace Phil Stowers stated his desire for a deal to not be made because of the unfairness of the current payment.
"They've been getting a good deal for a long time," Stowers said. "They've been getting a half-price deal for a long time. Frankly, as a county legislator, I feel their pain, and I understand that may have some kind of an impact."
Stowers said that, according to numbers from Comptroller Mike Hutchens, the smaller cities would pay a lot less under a per diem system.
"When I looked at the numbers, it looks like Sherwood, Maumelle and possibly Jacksonville would come out paying a little less based on detainees being brought into the jail," Stowers said. "It would be Little Rock and North Little Rock paying more because the majority of those that become incarcerated come from the Little Rock and North Little Rock jurisdictions."
According to Hutchens, very few jails in the country actually make money, and the charges to the cities are to reduce the cost of the jail, not an attempt to make money.
"Some people think it's the county digging into the cities trying to make money," Hutchens said. "We're not making any money. Jails are black holes that just suck money. I don't care where you go. There's no one that says their jail makes money."
Hutchens said there may be ways for the cities to reduce their cost once a per diem system goes into effect, such as in-vehicle booking.
"If you were picked up on a misdemeanor and they don't want to take you all the way to jail, there's technology now where they can actually book you in the car," Hutchens said.
When the 2021 bill was set to increase by 25% for each of the municipalities, the group of mayors led by Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. negotiated the lower increase with quarterly reviews for economic recovery in the cities.
While she was not a part of the discussions, Sherwood Mayor Virginia Young said the numbers are going to determine everything this coming year.
"I think we'll be like all the other entities," Young said. "We will want to see some calculations as to how it's arrived there. I think for some of us, there are still some unknowns. And, who knows, it could end up being more productive for the city of Sherwood."
The larger cities look more likely to pay larger sums than they are now compared to the smaller cities in Pulaski County.
Scott's spokeswoman Stephanie Jackson said the city leaders, including Scott, will be monitoring the continued effect of covid-19 and how the revenue loss may change their situation.
"The per diem for the Pulaski County Detention Center is included in the budget for 2021, which passed Tuesday," Jackson said. "Mayor Scott, CFO [Sara] Lenehan, and City Manager [Bruce] Moore will monitor and adjust (just as they did in 2020) where needed as COVID-19 will continue to potentially impact City revenue."