BENTONVILLE -- Voters will decide next month whether to approve sales tax measures to expand the county jail and pay the additional cost to operate it.
Benton County Sheriff Shawn Holloway believes expansion is needed to deal with jail overcrowding. Numerous other county elected officials support the proposal; others, such as the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, have endorsed it as well.
Others question the need or are concerned about the cost.
Early voting starts Oct. 24. Election Day is Nov. 8.
A county criminal justice committee recommended earlier this year nearly $250 million be spent on jail expansion and a courts complex.
The jail's inmate population Thursday was 716, according to the jail's website. However, there have been times this year when the population exceeded 800, according to Holloway.
Jail capacity is 669 beds, though that doesn't mean it can hold 669 people. Detainees must be segregated by different categories, including separate spaces for women and men, misdemeanor and felony offenders, sex offenders and those awaiting trial.
The Benton County Quorum Court agreed to seek voters' approval of two tax issues: a one-eighth percent sales tax increase to pay for the bond for the expansion and a one-quarter percent sales tax increase to pay for operations and management of the jail.
Money from the one-eighth percent increase would end when the bonds are paid off. The one-quarter percent increase would be permanent. Benton County Judge Barry Moehring said they will have to reevaluate the next steps if one of the tax increases passes and the other fails.
Officials: Jail too small
Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith supports the expansion project. The jail is not large enough to keep the community safe, he said.
"For our growing community to remain one of the best places in America to live, work and raise a family, we must prioritize public safety," Smith said.
An expanded jail would allow the Sheriff's Office to expand rehabilitation efforts and mental heath services and keep dangerous criminals off the streets, Smith said.
"If we follow the same radical, soft-on-crime policies of Portland, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, we can expect the same rising crime rate and lowering quality of life they have seen," Smith said. "I hope voters today make the same choice Benton County made in the 1990s that has paid untold dividends for our quality of life, to expand our jail and keep this community safe."
Moehring said the jail was opened in 1997 when the county's population was 165,000 people. The county's population now exceeds 284,000.
"The jail is inadequate for our size today and into the future," Moehring said.
The proposal calls for the project to be completed in three phases.
The first phase, which would include jail expansion and a criminal justice complex, would begin in 2023, according to plans presented to the Quorum Court.
Andy Pitts with TreanorHL, an architecture firm based in Kansas City, Mo., said the first phase would include a new evidence facility, triage housing with 96 beds, new intake facility, relocated Sheriff's Office, new criminal justice center with four courtrooms, parking, new jail support and new housing with 896 beds.
The second phase -- the medical/mental health addition -- would begin in 2025, according to plans. The addition includes a new dormitory with 192 beds and a medical/mental health space with 56 beds, Pitts said.
Construction on the final phase -- jail renovation -- would begin in 2026. The existing housing pods would be updated, and the existing intake/support area would be renovated, Pitts said.
The total cost of the jail expansion is estimated to be $241 million, Pitts said.
The ballot measures only concern expanding the jail because justices of the peace plan to pay for the courts project with existing county money.
Opposing the plan
Sarah Moore of the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition said the best practice recommended by the U.S. Department of Justice is to assess the entire criminal justice system and come up with solutions and recommendations for better efficiency and safety of the community. She said a consultant hired by the committee recommended a full array of solutions be thoroughly considered and researched before making the committee's recommendation to expand the jail.
"Unfortunately, the county did no further diligence" and a couple of months later, the County Criminal Justice Committee looked at no other solutions beyond building more jail beds, Moore said.
"The taxpayer deserves proper diligence and a full vetting of all of the possible solutions, and this has not occurred in Benton County," she said.
Moore and Jon Comstock, a former Benton County circuit judge, have spoken against the expansion project at several county meetings. The two proposed the county start a pretrial diversion program and a texting program to remind people of their court dates; and examine the bond system in the county as ways to combat jail crowding.
The expansion has not been proven necessary, Comstock said. Of those in custody, 85% are pretrial detainees with bonds set, he said.
The jail population was reduced during the covid-19 pandemic, so he knows the Sheriff's Office can figure out how to release 100 to 200 people from the jail without endangering the public, Comstock said.
The county could add a misdemeanor pod to hold people for misdemeanor cases, he said.
Joseph Bollinger, a justice of the peace, was the lone vote against putting the tax measures on the ballot. Bollinger said there are aspects of the jail expansion project he supports, such as the increased ability for programs to reduce the recidivism rate and the criminal courts being by the jail.
Bollinger said he voted against the expansion not because he did not want to resolve the crowding issue, but because he could not support raising taxes right now on county residents struggling to make ends meet due to high inflation rates and now recession.
Kurt Moore, another justice of the peace, supports the jail expansion.
"I wish we had tackled this question several years ago when we were debating the downtown courthouse question," he said. "There was quite a debate as to where the courts should reside with one faction wanting the courts near the jail and the other faction wanting the courts downtown."
The sales tax request to build the downtown courts facility was defeated in 2019.
Kurt Moore said he favors diversionary programs but also feels the courts must retain the ability to incarcerate those who are a danger to the public.
Brenda Peacock, county comptroller, said if the tax measures pass, taxes will start to be collected in April and the county will begin receiving money in June.
Moehring said if the measures pass, next year will be spent planning and designing the expansion. He expects the county to break ground by late 2023 or early 2024.
The difficult part will be building the facility while the current jail is in operation, he said. It will take three years to complete the first phase of the project, he said.
If the measures fail, the county will have to look at a scaled-down version that involves adding only beds to the jail without the space for medical and mental health, along with an area for treatment programs, he said.
The current jail
The main jail that opened in 1997 is 132,151 square feet. The building that holds female prisoners is 15,675 square feet and opened in 2012, said Bryan Beeson, county facilities administrator for Benton County.
Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette