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Benton County JPs mull adding jail beds as some pitch alternatives

by Tracy Neal | May 22, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.
A view of a cell block at the Benton County Jail on Thursday July 30, 2015 in Bentonville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/BEN GOFF)

BENTONVILLE -- Benton County's Quorum Court must decide whether to seek voter approval to almost triple the number of beds at the county jail, while some want justices of the peace to embrace alternatives to fixing the jail's crowding problem.

Justices of the peace were presented May 10 at a meeting with a proposal to expand the jail and build a criminal justice complex, which is expected to cost $241.47 million. The jail now has 669 beds. The expansion would add 1,240 beds.

Sarah Moore with the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition believes the county should first consider alternatives to adding beds. Over-incarceration is a problem in the community and in the state, she said.

Moore said if the Sheriff's Office gets the additional beds, then the facility will be filled with people. A different approach is needed, she said.

"We should be using beds for people we are scared of, not mad at," Moore said.

Coalition members held a news conference Friday in Fayetteville to call for a five-year moratorium on jail construction in both Benton and Washington counties.

Moore would like Benton County to establish a pretrial services program, which involves examining each arrestee to determine their needs. Issues may concern homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues. Assistance to address the issues can begin immediately, she said.

Jon Comstock of Rogers also asked justices of the peace to consider alternatives to expanding the jail. He asked them to declare a moratorium on adding jail beds. He also suggested a pretrial services program.

Comstock, a former Benton County circuit judge, said adding jail beds will only "continue the pipeline to prison."

Moore also believes the county and state should invest in more public defenders. She said the county's public defenders each handle 300 to 500 cases and the American Bar Association recommends public defenders each have around 150 cases.

She also said the county can expand or add specialty courts -- drug, veterans, driving while intoxicated and mental health courts.

Sheriff Shawn Holloway said the county's growth is the reason for jail crowding. The expansion project is being proposed to handle the growth for the next three decades, he said.

Holloway said prosecutors are already diverting cases and using alternative sentences, but those measures alone haven't halted the crowding.

"I don't want anymore inmates or employees, but we have to do something in response to the growth," he said.

Holloway said he favors a mental health court, alternative sentencing and diversion programs, but the expansion is necessary for public safety reasons.

Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith said his office is already doing pretrial diversions, but on a case-by-case basis instead of diverting cases based on a class of crimes.

Smith said he's a big advocate of specialty courts. Drug court had 40 participants when he took office in 2015, and now has 150.

Smith said he's not against sending text messages to people to remind them of court appearances, but believes the burden should be on individuals for missing court appearances.

"They failed to follow a judge's order and show up," he said.

Holloway noted the expansion is about more than adding beds. The expansion includes a new medical/mental health section that will have 56 beds, with rooms designed to hold individuals with mental health issues in a safe environment, he said. Holding people with mental health issues in the jail isn't appropriate, he said.

He told justices of the peace the current medical area is too small and no longer viable for the jail.

Moore said she appreciates Holloway wants a safe environment for people with mental health issues, but she questions whether the Sheriff's Office can provide the appropriate care for mentally ill detainees.

The county's challenge now is figuring out how to pay for the expansion project. Justices of the peace on May 10 did decide to use existing money -- $20 million from American Rescue Plan funds and $10 million from county reserve -- to pay for the criminal justice complex part of the project, estimated to cost $33.3 million.

The county is getting $54 million in rescue plan money from the federal government.

The projected total project costs of the expansion is $208.17 million without the complex included in the project.

Justice of the Peace Joel Jones said crowding is a problem the jail has been dealing with for the last 10 to 15 years and officials have been putting Band-Aids on it over the years.

In March, a county Criminal Justice Committee said it wanted voters to consider a measure to expand the jail in the November general election. The plan includes a judicial center for criminal courts and the prosecuting attorney's office.

County Judge Barry Moehring previously said justices of the peace must approve the ballot language by Aug. 30 to get the issue on the ballot for the Nov. 8 election.

Justices of the peace will discuss expansion at their meeting Thursday.

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