Thursday, July 03, 2014

TOP STORY >> Jail overcrowding is still unresolved

Leader senior staff writer

Despite a one-time, $6.2 million infusion from the General Assembly in the special, pre-dawn session Wednesday to open 600-plus additional jail beds, jail and prison overcrowding is far from resolved and has many moving parts, local officials say.

“We still have over 2,400 prisoners backed up in county jails awaiting a bed,” said Ronnie Baldwin executive director of the Arkansas Sheriff’s Association. “Additional inmates are awaiting a revocation hearing.”

He said he thought the additional beds would be available in about 30 days.

The association was a prime mover in getting Gov. Mike Beebe to include the financial request in the call for the special session.

Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay said the money will pay for leasing jail space around the state and paying for jailers, food and medical care for the additional prisoners and inmates—as long as it lasts.


“When it’s spent, it’s gone,” Holladay said. “(We) will be back before the legislature with further requests,” when it reconvenes in regular session in January.

Holladay says additional beds is only part of the solution. He says the state is working on its parole revocation system. After a parolee killed a man last year, paroles ground nearly to a halt. At that time, the Pulaski County lockup was open and not severely over crowded, Holladay said. After that, the jails filled again to overflowing.

Meanwhile, the interlocal agreement under which Pulaski County’s cities chip in to help defray the costs of the Pulaski County Detention Center will expire Dec. 31 and departing County Judge Buddy Villines is trying to negotiate a new one.


Tuesday night, the Pulaski County Quorum Court will vote on an ordinance to increase charges to those cities — Jacksonville, Sherwood, Little Rock, North Little Rock and Maumelle—by 5 percent or else charge them per diem, by the prisoner.

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher said that’s a proposal that makes a bad deal worse, at least for Jacksonville.

“I think that Jacksonville has been paying more than it should compared to other cities,” Fletcher said. “We’re paying $64,000 more than Sherwood that has a bigger population. We need to set a new basis, we’re already paying more than our fair share.”

But if Jacksonville didn’t sign the new agreement, the daily fee per prisoner per alternative would be prohibitive. “I’d go from paying $190,000 to half-a-million dollars a year,” according to Municipal League figures, Fletcher said.

And, “What is a city prisoner? If they are arrested for breaking a state law, why would they be a city prisoner?”


“This is going to bankrupt cities,” Fletcher said. “We need to get back to basics. We can’t pay an extra $300,000.”

City officials in Pulaski County would like to make a short-term financial commitment with the county to fund the jail until something can be worked out with a new — as-of-yet unelected — county judge next year, Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hillman said Thursday following a meeting of the city mayors.

“We’d like to work short term, then long term,” she said. “To resolve it right now is a little premature, that was the consensus.

“The judge’s proposal didn’t leave much room for negotiation.


“I do know we can’t run our own jail for what we pay the county,” she said.

Judge Buddy Villines’ proposed ordinance, cosponsored by 13 of 15 Pulaski County Quorum Court members, is on the agenda for the July meeting on Tuesday.

Holladay says Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola wants to delay any action until a new county judge takes office in January, but Holladay says it’s important for the county and the cities to know the path forward before passing their budgets.

Holladay and county lawyers are negotiating with the Correction Department to lease the 250-bed work-release center located a block away from the county lockup.

The county expects that half of those beds will be reserved for inmates locked up in its detention center, relieving its prisoner load by 125.

But Holladay said the lease will be for no longer than one year, because if the county can find funding, it would like to reopen that center for its own prisoners.

That would expand its capacity by 250 to 1,460.

He said the unit might be used for female inmates.

Currently, Holladay’s jail is closed, accepting only those charged with crimes of violence he said.


Villines has an either-or proposal for the mayors for the new interlocal agreement. Either they agree to a 5 percent increase in their share, plus an annual 3 percent cost-of-living increase, or they pay by the prisoner and day.

The jail itself costs the county $26 million a year, according to Comptroller Mike Hutchins, reduced by about $5 million after the cities, state and federal governments contribute.


Including the sheriff’s office, deputies, vehicles, gas, prosecutors and public defenders, 78 percent of the county’s $64 million budget is tied to law enforcement, jail, and the criminal justice system, he said.

The Lonoke County Jail is full beyond its intended capacity, and the state has tied up 44 beds of the 173 that were filled Thursday morning, according Sheriff John Staley.

He has one inmate who’s been in his jail for more than a year and another for nearly that long.

Violent prisoners and those with expensive medical needs are the top priority when it comes time to moving prisoners on to the state, so inmates like those two have stayed behind.

“We’ve only been able to take felons for a long time,” Staley said.

“We’re steady catching bad guys,” he said.

He called the action “a step in the right direction, but a small step.”