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Washington County hires coordinator for jail study group

by Tom Sissom | January 24, 2022 at 3:14 a.m.
The exterior of the Washington County jail. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County officials say hiring a coordinator for the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee should aid the group in searching for alternatives to a costly jail expansion.

Drew Smith began working for the county Jan. 6. She has been meeting with committee members individually and will participate in the panel's next monthly meeting set for 11 a.m. Thursday .

Smith worked for Sebastian County in the same role for four months, from April to August 2021. She said she left when a "difference of opinion" or "differing visions" of the committee's objectives developed.

Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett, who serves as co-chairman of the committee along with Nick Robbins with Returning Home, said hiring a full-time coordinator should help the committee members in doing research, reporting back to the committee and facilitating the work of the different sub-committees.

"There are a lot of things Nick and I just can't do in terms of gathering information," Durrett said. "We both have full-time jobs, as do the other members of the committee. The coordinator will be able keep a focus, to know specifically where the areas are that benefit the county the most. That's what we want to do rather than have a shotgun approach and be all over the place."

Smith said she is studying the background of Washington County's path to forming a Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.

"I'm trying to get to know the members and hear their points of view," Smith said. "I'm trying to get to know where they want this committee to go."

The committee formed to explore alternatives to a proposed jail expansion project. Sheriff Tim Helder presented a plan for a $38 million, 600-bed jail expansion to the Quorum Court in 2018. The expansion would have been paid for by a temporary sales tax.

Justices of the peace said they wanted to explore alternatives to a jail expansion and a report authorized by the Quorum Court recommended forming a committee to consider options short of expanding the jail.

The committee includes representatives from law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, mental health professionals and some community representatives.

The group has made some steps on its own, including a recent warrants clinic aimed at keeping people with outstanding arrest warrants for failure to appear from being arrested and jailed. Durrett said the Jan. 6 clinic brought more than 70 people to St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Durrett said about 20 people accepted plea agreements and others had their cases reset and the arrest warrants recalled.

Leana Houston, chief deputy with the Public Defender's Office, said work is already underway to repeat the clinic and possibly expand it to include detainees at the jail who are being held for failure to appear offenses.

The jail's population hit a record high of 802 detainees on Feb. 6, 2020, according to Sheriff's Office information. The jail has a design capacity of 710 beds. With legal requirements for separating different classifications of detainees, the operating capacity is about 80% of the design total, or about 570 detainees.

The Sheriff's Office worked with the prosecuting attorney, public defender and circuit court judges to try and reduce the number of people held in the jail when the covid-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

That effort included increasing the number of felony citations issued to offenders in lieu of bringing them to the jail, releasing some detainees on their own recognizance, implementing a pilot program of releasing some detainees who agreed to wear ankle monitors as a condition of their release and working to lower bond amounts for inmates.

The jail population hit a low of 373 detainees on May 1, 2020. The population was 763 as of Thursday.

In August 2021, Helder proposed a smaller expansion to deal with covid-related problems in the jail and the Quorum Court subsequently approved spending $250,000 for design work on the proposal. The cost of the expansion has been estimated to be between $18 million and $19 million.

Information presented to the justices of the peace shows the expansion would add 230 beds in medium-security additions. There wouldn't be a full jail pod built in this proposal.

The largest single part of the expansion plan is a 130-bed addition for women, adding 14,000 to 15,000 square feet. Another large expansion would add 100 beds for men in 11,000 to 12,000 square feet. The plan also would expand the jail's intake area and medical space.

Lance Johnson, justice of the peace for District 1, is the Quorum Court's representative on the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee. Johnson said working to reduce the jail population is necessary, but a jail expansion is also needed.

"Three years ago, I wasn't ready to support a jail expansion," Johnson said. "I'm convinced today that it's not an option, it's inevitable. We've got to do a whole bunch of things to reduce the population at the jail but I think some kind of an expansion is inevitable."

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What’s next

Washington County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee is scheduled to meet at 11 a.m. Thursday to continue work aimed at making the criminal justice system more efficient and responsive to the community’s needs. The panel was formed as a result of an effort by the Quorum Court to find solutions to crowding in the county’s jail other than jail expansion.

Source: Washington County


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