After Benton, Washington counties say no to jail expansion proposals, officials seek solutions to crowding

Opponents, backers of expansions share thoughts

Longtime poll workers Martha and John Newell help to check in voters Tuesday at the community center in West Fork. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
Longtime poll workers Martha and John Newell help to check in voters Tuesday at the community center in West Fork. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

Opponents and backers of the failed jail expansion projects in Benton and Washington counties said Wednesday they accept the voters' decisions, but they have different views on what to do next.

Patrick Deakins, whom voters chose Tuesday as the next Washington County judge, supported the jail expansion plan.

"Of course, it's disappointing," Deakins said. "But I respect the voters' decision. A sales tax increase and a big expansion is not what they're interested in."

Deakins said he wants to see both counties explore all of their options, including having some serious discussion about a regional jail concept.

"I think we owe it to the taxpayers to vet this thing out," he said.

Jon Comstock, a former circuit court judge in Benton County, is with the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition, which opposed the jail expansion proposals in both counties. He said he was pleased by the outcome and both counties should take the vote as a signal to explore alternatives to building bigger jails.

"I was very relieved and very thankful with the way the voting turned out," Comstock said. "I'm hopeful we can now meet with those justices of the peace and be a part of the process. We've laid down 10 or 15 ways they can incrementally deal with overcrowding in the jails that are less costly and more efficient."

In Washington County, voters rejected a proposal to issue up to $113.5 million in bonds to expand the jail and up to $28.5 million in bonds for a Juvenile Justice Center expansion project. The bonds would have been paid by a 0.25% sales tax that would expire once the bonds were paid.

The jail has a design capacity of 710 but is considered full when the population reaches about 80%-85% of those 710 beds -- around 570 detainees -- because of legal requirements to separate different classifications of detainees, such as separate spaces for women and men, misdemeanor and felony offenders, sex offenders and those awaiting trial.

The jail population last month was around 800, with more than 150 detainees sleeping on mats on the floor because of the separation requirements.

Complete but unofficial results showed voters opposing both issues.

Jail improvement bonds:

Against 39,426 (59%)

For 27,539 (41%)

Juvenile court improvement bonds:

Against 36,408 (54%)

For 30,528 (46%)

In Benton County, voters defeated a $241 million plan to expand the jail and build a new criminal justice complex, with bonds to be paid for by a temporary sales tax increase, as well as a permanent sales tax to pay for jail operations.

The Benton County Jail population has exceeded 800 at times this year, according to Sheriff Shawn Holloway. The jail has 669 beds, though like the Washington County jail, inmates must be segregated by different categories.

Complete but unofficial results showed voters rejecting a one-eighth percent sales tax increase to pay for the jail expansion.

Against 55,996 (63%)

For 32,325 (37%)

Complete but unofficial results showed voters rejecting a one-quarter percent sales tax increase to pay for operations of the jail.

Against 55,690 (62%)

For 33,485 (38%)

Jay Cantrell is chief deputy with the Washington County Sheriff's Office and will take over as sheriff in January. Cantrell said the Sheriff's Office will continue to work with judges, prosecutors, public defenders and local law enforcement agencies to manage the jail population. Cantrell said the election outcome wasn't what he had hoped for.

"I feel a little bit of disappointment, but also a certain acceptance of the fact that the people spoke," Cantrell said. "I felt good about the fact that the people were able to vote on this. It's obviously not the result we wanted. We know we've got a finite amount of bed space and we have to roll our sleeves up and get to work with what we've got."

Cantrell said the county has paid to have architectural and engineering work done on a smaller expansion prompted by the covid-19 pandemic and those plans are nearing completion. That expansion would add about 232 beds in different space configurations and room sizes to allow better separation of detainees who have or may have been exposed to contagious diseases and need to be quarantined. The current jail design has larger areas for detainees, and when a small number need to be quarantined, it aggravates the crowded conditions in the rest of the jail.

The covid-related expansion would also provide extra space for booking and releasing detainees, a courtroom, medical services, storage and offices. Cantrell said the cost is estimated at $18 million to $20 million, and the county hasn't yet approved any funding for construction.

Lance Johnson is Washington County justice of the peace for District 1 and chairman of the Quorum Court's Jail, Courts and Law Enforcement Committee. Johnson said the county still needs a larger jail, but he doesn't know what the next step toward that will be.

"I think we've got to find out what 'Plan B' is, but I don't have the answer today," Johnson said Wednesday.

"It's not an option anymore," Johnson said of expanding the jail or releasing more detainees. "The folks we're going to have to let go are folks who we really need to keep in jail."

Sarah Moore is with the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition and won a seat on the Fayetteville City Council in Tuesday's election. Moore said both counties must look to alternatives to incarceration that have already been identified and are working in other areas but have not been implemented locally.

"I think the community made a very strong statement," Moore said. "The voters said, 'We don't want more incarceration, we want solutions that uplift our entire community.' There are evidence-based solutions like expanded pretrial services that we've seen working in Douglas County, Kan., and a sobering center in Oklahoma City. We don't have to reinvent the wheel."

Benton County Judge Barry Moehring said voters sent a clear message with the defeat of the sales tax measures for the jail. The Benton County Jail's crowding problem will continue, so it has to be addressed, he said.

Moehring said the county will have to come up with a plan but it will not have a directed revenue source to pay for it. He said he hadn't talked with any officials about bringing a smaller proposal to voters to expand the jail.

"It's the morning after, and we haven't gotten together," Moehring said. "The margin was pretty big. We have to take that into account."

Nathan Smith, Benton County's prosecuting attorney, said recent inflation has made people resistant to any new tax.

"The need for more jail space isn't going away though, and we must find a way to address it," Smith said. "While I am disappointed we won't get the facility we need, I will continue to do all I can with the resources we have to keep this community safe."

Carol Vella ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the Benton County Quorum Court's District 8 seat. The county has to look at alternatives to incarceration, she said.

"I'm enthused by the community's rejection of the jail taxes because I know that we, Benton County, can do better," Vella said. "Among other things, the current court's recommendation to build a jail implies a disregard for the fact that 50% of the inmates are there due to failure to appear. What if instead we addressed the reason behind failure to appear? Could it be that public transportation is lacking? Could it be that alternative court times are necessary when working with a population who works hourly jobs?

"As a foster parent, I've worked with families that have limited resources, a limited support system, no option to miss work at their hourly job, but enormous potential and desire to be great parents and members of the community," Vella said.

Jail alternatives

Washington County commissioned a study by the National Center for State Courts in 2019 that recommended a range of alternatives from improved pretrial services, consideration of lowering the bond amounts being set by the court, alternative courts and services to help people avoid missing court dates and being subject to arrest for failure to appear. The county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee was formed to study those options and recommend alternatives to building a bigger jail. The committee is still considering a range of proposals including a mental health court similar to the existing drug court and other diversionary programs, along with ways to speed up the court processes and provide pretrial services to help arrestees avoid having to remain in jail awaiting trial.

Source: Washington County


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