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story.lead_photo.caption STAFF PHOTO ANTHONY REYES Inmates spend time in dayroom Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 at the Washington County Jail in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County's justices of the peace on Monday put off action on a plan to expand the county's Detention Center, with several new justices of the peace saying they want to consider alternatives to building more jail space and increasing taxes.

The Quorum Court's Jail/Law Enforcement/Courts Committee voted to postpone until March a discussion of ordinances calling for a special election on a bond issue, funded by a sales tax increase, to pay for a $38 million jail expansion and an $11 million upgrade to the county's emergency communications system. Those bonds would be paid for by a 0.5 percent increase in the countywide sales tax. The county would also ask voters to approve a separate 0.25 percent increase in the sales tax to pay for ongoing operation and maintenance of the bigger jail.

What’s next

Washington County’s justices of the peace agreed Monday to continue their discussion of a proposed jail expansion. The county’s Jail/Law Enforcement/Courts Committee voted to postpone action on ordinances calling for a special election on a bond issue and sales tax increase for the plan until the panel’s March meeting. Justice of the Peace Ann Harbison said she wants to have a retreat or special work session on the plan before that meeting so the justices of the peace and public can hear more details on the proposal. No date for the work session was set at Monday’s meeting.

Source: Staff report

The county has been considering a new pod for the jail, to house about 500 inmates, and a 100-bed minimum security unit. The current jail has about 710 beds, but the capacity is less than that because of state and federal requirements to segregate different classifications of prisoners, including separation of pretrial detainees and post-conviction inmates, men and women, violent and nonviolent offenders, sex offenders and other categories. Randall Denzer, in charge of jail operations, said the county routinely has 40 to 50 prisoners who sleep on mattresses on the floor because of a lack of beds in some areas.

"We had 59 on the floor today," Denzer told the justices of the peace Monday.

Helder said the county is now releasing as many as 200 prisoners a month to keep the jail population at acceptable levels. He said the county has considered and is using many alternatives and concluded the jail expansion is still needed.

"We've done the studies," Helder said. "We've been talking about this for over four years. The public has had opportunity after opportunity to discuss this."

Ann Harbison, justice of the peace for District 14, said the county needs to move forward with the proposal as quickly as possible. She suggested a retreat or work session for new justices of the peace to inform them on what the county has already done on the project.

"We've got to get up to speed on this," Harbison said.

Other justices of the peace wanted more time, as did many members of the public who spoke at Monday's meeting.

Elizabeth Coger, a Fayetteville resident, presented the committee members with a list of alternatives to incarceration she said the county should consider, ranging from ending the county's participation in the 287g immigration program, to greater use of home detention and sentencing alternatives. Coger suggested hiring an outside entity to do an audit of the jail and the sheriff's office to see what cost-cutting measures might be found.

"We shouldn't rush to do this," Coger said of the proposed jail expansion. "It's too important."

Sarah Moore, another Fayetteville resident, said the county needs to work on the planned Crisis Stabilization Unit, which would have 16 beds for people with mental health issues who come into contact with local law enforcement agencies but who can be diverted away from incarceration. Moore said the county needs to explore other mental health treatment options, citing statistics she said show about one person in four of the nation's jail and prison population needs some kind of mental health treatment.

Harvey Bowman, justice of the peace for District 3, said he "despises" the idea of increasing the sales tax, but he said the county has to take some action after years of talking about the problem.

"We are at the point where we've got to do something," Bowman said.

The committee also postponed action on a plan to charge cities more to hold municipal prisoners in the county's Detention Center.

A proposal to charges cities a flat fee based on their population, rather than a per-inmate fee, had been proposed by Bowman at a recent meeting between county and city officials. Bowman said he has since learned the county can't impose such fees but would need to enter into interlocal agreements with each of the municipalities involved.

NW News on 02/12/2019

Print Headline: County officials put off jail expansion


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