BENTONVILLE -- Benton County justices of the peace granted permission for County Judge Barry Moehring to seek qualifications from firms for conceptual designs for a possible expansion of the Benton County Jail.
The Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee on Thursday night gave a presentation to the county American Rescue Plan Committee on jail expansion using money from the federal plan. It provides $350 billion for eligible state, local, territorial and tribal governments nationwide, according to the county.
Benton County will receive a combined $54 million over the next two years.
Moehring said the county will immediately begin advertising to seek the qualifications for firms. It may take one to two months before officials identify a firm or firms and bring the contract to the justices, he said.
Moehring previously said money from the plan could be used for covid mitigation and covid prevention.
An eligible use is "support for prevention, mitigation or other services in congregate living facilities (incarceration settings, homeless shelters, etc.)," according to information from an Aug. 16 meeting county meeting that dealt with public health and economic recovery.
An expansion would allow Sheriff Shawn Holloway and his staff to be better equipped to handle covid-19 or another pandemic.
Moehring said he supports criminal justice reform but described jail expansion as a public-health issue since the jail was a hot spot in the county for covid-19 during the pandemic.
Holloway told the justices the Sheriff's Office is limited in how it separates people in the jail. There's not enough room to separate individuals because some pods have up 15o people in them, he said.
Holloway said the jail has a small area designated for medical but didn't have enough nurses or doctors to deal with inmates when covid-19 spread through the jail. One issue is inmates had to be brought from their housing areas to medical and then return to those areas, which may have helped spread the virus, he said.
"Men and women have separate areas, but what they don't have is separate medical, separate kitchen and separate booking," Holloway said.
Peter Christie, who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee, said the proposed expansion would include a multi-purpose space that will enable the jail to better be able to segregate inmates during a pandemic, but also be used to house inmates on a daily basis. The area will include an intake area where inmates will be screened. If a person tests positive they would be held in a special area.
Holloway said he envisions having pocket areas within the jail to hold virus positive individuals until they are not contagious.
The expansion project would include sobering and mental-health centers, Christie said.
Resident Jon Comstock said he was excited about having sobering and mental-health facilities, but he was concerned with expanding the bed capacity with an expansion. He urged the justices to consider alternative sentencing to help reduce the jail's population.
Sarah Moore, who lives in Washington County, also asked the justices to look at other alternatives to help reduce the jail population.
Christie said the focus was on long-term solutions before covid-19 hit. The expansion is a short term solution, but the Criminal Justice Committee will continue to look into ways to address recidivism.
McKenzie announces resignation
Benton County Justice of the Peace Mike McKenzie of Rogers, who represents District 1, announced his resignation at the meeting. He and his wife have moved outside the district to Bentonville. He now lives in Justice Joel Edwards’ District 15.
McKenzie, 71, agreed to remain on the court until the Quorum Court declares a vacancy. Gov. Asa Hutchinson will then appoint a replacement.
McKenzie has been on the court for 6½ years.
Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette