BENTONVILLE -- A committee is exploring short- and long-term solutions to crowding in the Benton County jail.
The committee is looking at more than jail expansion, said Bella Vista Mayor Peter Christie, who is chairman of the Benton County Criminal Justice Coordination Committee. The committee will also seek ways to reduce recidivism and study behavioral health issues, he said.
Benton County Sheriff Shawn Holloway formed the committee last year. It met once before the covid-19 pandemic hit. A second meeting was held in April.
Holloway updated the Benton County justices of the peace at the May 18 Committee of Whole meeting. He told the justices the coordination committee is a permanent advisory group to address needs in the county criminal justice system.
The committee held its third meeting Thursday. Christie said it set up a jail population subcommittee to determine what's driving the growing jail population and to address recidivism.
The committee plans to meet every three weeks. There's no timetable for when proposals or recommendations will be presented to the Quorum Court, Christie said.
Tim Summers served on the Quorum Court in the 1990s when it put a sales tax before voters to build the jail. The tax was approved. The Quorum Court believed at the time there were enough jail beds to last 25 to 30 years, but the facility was expanded to increase the number of beds less than 10 years later, he said.
Summers, also a former state legislator, was director of Decision Point, which was a drug rehabilitation facility. Summers said he brings that experience to the committee and understands alcohol and drug addictions help fuel the inmate population.
"I may have a different perspective because of my experiences," he said. "If we just continue on the current course, then we will continue to have to build bigger and bigger jails."
The jail has a capacity of 667 beds and the sheriff's office had up to 700 inmates in March 2020. The population count averaged 407 inmates last June, said Shannon Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the sheriff"s office.
There were 589 inmates in the jail Thursday, Jenkins said. She said it costs the sheriff's office $60 per day to house an inmate.
Washington County formed a Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee in October to consider ways of managing its jail population. The panel hasn't reported back to the Quorum Court with recommendations. County Attorney Brian Lester said Friday that the group is still getting organized and hasn't had any discussion of jail crowding or related issues.
Before the covid-19 pandemic began in 2020, the Washington County's jail population exceeded 800 detainees. The jail has about 710 beds, and detainees were routinely sleeping on the floor. On Friday, the jail population was 537, according to Kelly Cantrell, spokeswoman for the Washington County sheriff"s office.
Christie said it's expected Benton County's jail will need at least 2,500 beds by 2045 because of the area's population growth. He said that's why the committee will be looking at solutions other than just expansion.
Jay Saxton, Benton County's chief public defender, serves on the committee. Saxton said he favors an approach other than expanding the jail.
"You don't have to hold every single person arrested in jail or hold them on high bonds," he said.
The Bail Project will post bonds up to $5,000 in some cases, Saxton said. The nonprofit organization helps to provide money for those unable to pay the bond needed to be released and to work with those released to meet their obligations to appear in court.
Saxton believes The Bail Project could assist in more cases if bonds were lowered.
Judges also can impose more conditions on people when they set bonds, he said.
A judge recently placed a condition on a person who, once released from custody, had to go to Ozark Guidance to be assessed for alcohol or drug issues and comply with any recommendations, Saxton said. The person isn't taking up a bed in the jail, and he's getting help with any potential drug or alcohol issues, Saxton said.
Benton County prosecutor Nathan Smith said the goal should remain public safety.
"Too often, other states and cities simply release criminals from jail and claim to have alleviated overcrowding while actually endangering their communities," he said.
Smith, a committee member, said he's thankful Benton County is pursuing an all-of-the-above approach that includes developing programs to keep people from jail and increasing the number of beds to keep criminals off the street.
The committee faces a challenging task, Summers said.
"There's no easy answers," he said.