Washington County Criminal Justice Committee Issues Initial Report

FAYETTEVILLE — The need for a mental health court to divert people from prison and programs to help others get out of prison and stay out were among issues raised in a report on criminal justice reform of Washington County.

County officials received a preliminary outline Monday of the work being done by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.

The panel is charged with examining ways the county could improve the criminal justice system and reduce overcrowding at the jail. The committee is made up of representatives from county government, law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, public defenders and community members.

Prosecutor Matt Durrett, co-chair of the committee, said the report was written in response to questions from some justices of the peace. He said a more detailed report, with recommendations from the panel, is the likely next step.

“This report is something the Jail Committee was looking for,” Durrett said. “Something to give them the parameters, an idea of ​​the issues we’re facing and what we’ve been looking at. They had asked for this to give them an idea of ​​where we might be looking to put the funding and the resources. “

DATA TO CONSIDER

The report begins with several points of information used as a starting point to define the issues under consideration.

According to the report, the prison has about 150 “medical patients” per week. About 75% of those arrested report having mental health issues. With a population of 704 detainees on April 28, this would mean up to 528 people declaring themselves affected by mental health problems.

The average time from arrest to trial is six months, according to the report. Bail is usually set within 24 hours of a person’s arrest, and an inmate sees a judge within 48 to 72 hours of arrest. It takes 30 to 45 days to assign a lawyer to a case.

The prison reported a population of 704 people on April 28. From January 1 to April 22, 602 inmates were released on their own recognizance and 730 were released by sheriff’s order.

On April 28, there were 95 people incarcerated with a failure to appear charge only and 493 without a failure to appear charge.

At the county’s first fail-to-appear clinic on Jan. 6, 20 people were able to reach plea deals and six returned to court records.

Durrett said the issues highlighted in the report could be addressed through a series of programs, some of which are listed in the report. The committee considered running more non-appearance clinics and hiring a diversion case manager to get those inmates who qualify for specialized courts like drug court and court into these programs faster. veterans. The establishment of a mental health court is also on the list of programs under consideration.

The panel also discussed the need for a program building or dedicated space for diversion programs and behavioral health programs at the prison. Pre-trial services – including notifying inmates of court dates, transportation and referrals to services available in the community – were also mentioned.

The report contained general information on the possible costs of certain programs, including an annual salary of $55,000 for a diversion case manager, 0,000 annual salary for two probation officers for a mental health court and 250,000 $ for a program building on the prison campus.

Durrett said the county must continue to explore these and other alternatives to incarceration, even if voters approve a proposed prison expansion.

Sheriff Tim Helder asked the Court of Quorum to propose a plan to expand the jail as well as a tax increase to pay for the project in the November general election ballot. The cost of the expansion was estimated at $96 million.

“From my perspective, we have to move forward with these whether or not voters approve of the prison expansion,” Durrett said. “Even if voters approve of the expansion, I think we still need to do things like a mental health court and pre-trial services. Right now the prison is overcrowded, making it a pressing issue. But I think we need both.”

RESISTANCE TO PRISON EXPANSION

A local advocacy group, the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition, has called for a five-year moratorium on all new jail construction in Benton and Washington counties to give incarceration time alternatives to be implemented and to show their effectiveness. Group member Sarah Moore said she wants local officials to do more than talk about alternatives.

“We’ve been talking about some of these things for years,” Moore said. “None of these things are unique or new. They have been shown to work in study after study and in cities, counties and other jurisdictions across the country. There is a sobering center for successful since the 1970s in Oklahoma. While it’s good that we’re having a discussion, it’s time to act. We need to invest money in these proven solutions.

Moore said the coalition is planning a June 23-24 trip to Douglas County, Kansas, inviting local officials to observe programs operating there and being discussed in northwest Arkansas. .

” They succeed ; why don’t we want that for washington county? Moore said.

Justice of the Peace Willie Leming said he thought the county had waited too long to expand the jail and was unconvinced the suggested alternatives would compensate for the need for more jail space.

“I don’t see where there’s more and more bed space,” Leming said of the suggested alternatives. “They can talk all they want, but I believe that’s the only answer we have. I’m not saying don’t try to help people, but that’s not the solution. We need a bigger prison and more mental health services. I think we have to do both, but we have to get the prison going.”

Justice of the Peace Evelyn Rios Stafford said the Court of Quorum should not ‘automatically approve’ the prison expansion proposal until there is more information on the cost and scope of the project and on alternatives that might alleviate some or all of the need for more prison space.

“Where will the permanent funding for a bigger prison come from?” asked Stafford. “Are we minimizing construction, operating and maintenance costs? To my knowledge, no one in Benton or Washington counties has talked about a regional jail. That’s the kind of thing that should be included in this discussion. A lot of these alternative programs are things that can be thrown. We have millions of dollars in US bailout money that can be used for one-time expenses, and I think we should use some for those kinds of things that we’re allowed to use it in. If we want to put something on the ballot, some of those things also need funding.

Jay Cantrell, Washington County Sheriff‘s Office chief deputy and sheriff-elect, said the county should continue programs like mental health court and add more pretrial services, but the addition of prison spaces is inevitable.

“Most of the things they talk about require space, and there’s just no space to do anything,” Cantrell said. “It would be nice to have the space for more mental health services, to have the space to separate people who need to be kept apart from the general population, for education and for services before the trial, but with 110 to 115 people sleeping on the floor every night and with an average of around 730 people in the jail, we just don’t have room.”

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