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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette FILE PHOTO The exterior of the Washington County jail.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County's justices of the peace on Monday recommended approval of two proposals aimed at reducing overcrowding at the county's Detention Center.

The Quorum Court's Jail/Law Enforcement/Courts Committee discussed and approved on voice votes a pair of resolutions, one that would ask that the county end its agreement to hold prisoners for the U.S. Marshal's Service and another directing Sheriff Tim Helder to try to find other Arkansas counties willing to hold detainees who have been sentenced to prison but remain in the Detention Center awaiting space in the state Department of Correction.

Other business

Washington County’s Jail/Law Enforcement/Courts Committee on Monday discussed the lease between the county and the state for the old county jail on College Avenue. The building is now being used by the state Department of Community Correction for women inmates to help them make the transition to life after incarceration. Justice of the Peace Patrick Deakins has suggested the facility could be reclaimed by the county and used to help reduce overcrowding at the Washington County Detention Center. A letter from the state said improvements to the building during the time of the lease have cost about $1.1 million. Under the terms of the lease the county would have to reimburse the state for the cost of those expenditures. No action was taken.

Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette

The resolutions will be sent on to the full Quorum Court for consideration and possible approval. Resolutions express the intent of the Quorum Court but are not binding.

Patrick Deakins, justice of the peace for District 5, sponsored both resolutions along with justices of the peace Sam Duncan from District 7 and Judith Yanez of District 4. Deakins said he doesn't want Washington County to be "in the jail business" and house prisoners for the state or federal governments or other counties while the Washington County Detention Center is full beyond its designed capacity of 710 beds.

"My priority is to the people of Washington County," Deakins said. "I toured the jail last September; it made me sick. I don't have the solution but I know we're not doing the right thing."

Helder said Washington County's jail overcrowding problem is homegrown. He said the majority of what people refer to as state or federal prisoners are local people.

"The federal prisoners we are holding are primarily from the Fayetteville district," Helder said. "A good number are handed off from city or county investigations and turned over to federal prosecutors for enhanced penalties."

The same holds true for state prisoners, Helder said, with the exception of a small number of prisoners transferred to Washington County under Act 309 who are allowed to serve their sentences in county facilities where they work within the detention facilities. The remainder are people who were arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to prison from Washington County or Madison County.

"These folks are local," Helder said.

Helder also told the justices of the peace they would have to find some way to make good a $2.5 million budget shortfall at the Detention Center if the county ends its agreements with the federal government and reduces the number of prisoners waiting to transfer to a state prison.

"I think the citizens may want to see where that money tree is," Helder said.

Deakins said his concern is for the safety of the community, the Detention Center staff and the detainees, not with money. He called the $40 per day the state provides as reimbursement for holding prisoners "a consolation prize for taking on a state responsibility." He said other counties that are dealing with jail overcrowding have found counties willing to take on those prisoners.

"Other counties do it," Deakins said. "We need to at least investigate it."

Justice of the Peace Ann Harbison, from District 14, said many of the detainees are arrested on drug charges and that deserves more attention.

"It seems to me in the community we need to be addressing the drug problem," Harbison said.

During the meeting the Sheriff's Office staff pointed out that the number of detainees being booked into the jail was growing steadily despite efforts to release more detainees on citation or on the own recognizance. The number released on citation topped 257 in the last month. The Detention Center population at 4 p.m. Monday was 799, according to the staff, and the number has exceeded 800 in the last week.

Helder said ending the contract with the federal government and transferring some state prisoners to other counties won't solve the underlying problems -- like population growth and the closing of the Springdale municipal jail -- that cause the Detention Center to be overcrowded.

"Don't kid yourself, there's going to be backfill," Helder said. "We're going to be filling up those beds."

NW News on 02/11/2020

Print Headline: County officials OK jail overcrowding plans

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