Concerns about the expense of a new cost-sharing measure between cities and the Pulaski County jail have led North Little Rock officials to implement in-house booking for some prisoners as a way to save money.
The department purchased a portable fingerprinting and identification system that gives officers the ability to fingerprint, identify, cite and release an arrestee themselves. The system has been operational for about three months.
It is meant to be used for Class C misdemeanors, where an arrestee won't put the public in harm's way.
The North Little Rock City Council unanimously approved in November to enter into an agreement with Pulaski County concerning operation of the county jail after months of discussion about a cost-sharing plan for the facility.
North Little Rock agreed to pay the county $1,066,716 in 2020 to detain the city's prisoners in the facility. That is a 25% increase from what the city paid in 2019.
The agreement goes into effect in 2020 and is part of an ongoing discussion between the county and its cities about costs incurred by the county through the operation of a regional facility.
Earlier this year, various city leaders within the county expressed displeasure to County Judge Barry Hyde over a 2018 Quorum Court ordinance that updated how cities are billed for use of the facility.
Hyde said the county wants to change the cost-sharing plan from a lump sum to a per-prisoner payment system.
"My predecessor actually started working on this idea," Hyde said Monday afternoon.
Jail fees are expected to increase significantly for smaller cities such as Sherwood, which would see its payment increase from $142,704 in 2019 to an estimated $473,637 in 2020 -- a rise of about 230%.
"Each city complained they couldn't pay the full cost," Hyde said. "They were disputing the sheriff's figures on the cost of incarceration. We decided to agree on an interim solution."
North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith said the cities and county have agreed to an audit that will be conducted by an independent auditor to identify the expense of running the jail. The cost of the audit will be shared equally by the cities and county.
Hyde said the audit is expected to begin in March and discussion will resume in the middle of the year.
"It was what the law provides for," Hyde said of the per-prisoner system. "It doesn't make sense for the county to carry the burden of the expenses. We are all dealing with financial pressure."
North Little Rock has taken a harder look at its use of the county jail.
Tracy Roulston, assistant chief for the North Little Rock Police Department, said the change Hyde suggested earlier this year would cost the city an extra $100,000 in jail fees to house arrestees.
"We started looking at the data and found that over 50 percent of the arrestees were being released an hour or so after being booked," Roulston said. "They weren't even housing them, just gathering the information."
Raulston said the procedure the county jail was conducting for 50% of North Little Rock's arrestees could have been done by officers without leaving the city, which is what they started doing.
"Disorderly conducts we are probably still going to take to the jail," Raulston said. "Anything physical will also go to the detention center."
Despite the flat fee remaining the same, Raulston said the city decided to implement the new plan and located a fingerprint machine at the precinct in Lakewood. He said the system is mostly used for shoplifters, and that is why it was located near the city's shopping district in Lakewood.
Raulston said the department has always had the option to cite and release arrestees.
North Little Rock officials discovered that officers were spending almost two hours at the county facility attempting to book an arrestee. Raulston said the county jail can allow only one car into the bay at a time, which means on a busy day an officer might sit in line for an hour or more waiting to book an arrestee.
"Having an officer out of pocket for one to two hours, plus the potential cost, caused us to reanalyze the situation," he said.
Officers use their own discretion regarding when they cite and release someone or take the person to the county detention center.
Numbers provided by the Pulaski County Sheriffs Office showed 524 people were cited and released from the detention facility in November. Of those, 174 were North Little Rock arrests with 125 being felonies or warrants.
Hyde said the decision to implement the fingerprinting system at substations in North Little Rock was a good thing for the city's citizens.
"I am tickled to hear they are using the fingerprinting system," he said. "I don't see this as a bad thing. I see it as smart government."
Pulaski County Sheriff Eric Higgins also expressed support for the idea.
"This was one of the suggestions discussed in Pulaski County's Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee over the last year," Higgins said.
Hyde said the expense for booking a prisoner is about $270 per inmate, and the entire process can be time-consuming for officers. In some cases, he said, it might take three hours for an officer to get back to his patrol sector -- all for a low-level misdemeanor citation.
"In some cases, if the person who was booked contacted a friend or cab they might beat the officer back," Hyde said. "I don't know of one city police department that is fully staffed. They are all spread thin.
"What North Little Rock is following is a trend of best practices."
Metro on 12/25/2019