Arkansas sheriffs don’t seem to be getting much sympathy in response to their plea for a legislative solution to a dilemma caused by the state’s latest “get-tough-on-criminals” effort.
Ronnie Baldwin, executive director of the Arkansas Sheriffs Association, last week described county jails as being in a “dire situation” and urged the governor and Legislature to address the issue in a special session.
The problem, according to the sheriffs, is that they are holding approximately 2,700 state inmates in county jails because the state prison system has no place to put them.
“The state must address this critical situation that is already at its boiling point,” Baldwin said in an association news release. “It is far past due for the state to take responsibility for all of its inmates.”
While the state reimburses the counties $28 a day for housing each state inmate, the sheriffs contend that the actual cost is $45 a day, according to a state legislative audit.
“The low prisoner reimbursement rate costs counties an excessive amount and actually pulls funds from other needed resources within the counties,” said Chris Villines, Association of Arkansas Counties executive director. The difference, he added, costs the counties an estimated $18 million per year.
The news release said the state is collectively using the county jails as its largest penal facility. For example, the Cummins Unit (Lincoln County) of the state system has a capacity of 1,850.
In other words, the state is avoiding the construction of another prison, or at least the equivalent in total prison beds, by dumping the problem on the counties. Because the state doesn’t pay enough to cover the costs, county budgets are being stretched while the sheriffs scramble to find space for their own prisoners.
Things got so bad at the Pulaski County Detention Center that Sheriff Doc Holladay on April 29 closed it to all non-violent, non-felony offenders. It was re-opened Monday when the population dipped to 1,126, about 90 below capacity.
The problem has become much worse since last year, when lawmakers approved legislation and the Department of Correction tightened policy restrictions on parolees. These actions followed several high-profile cases, including a murder, that involved parolees who were free despite several felony arrests.
In response to the sheriffs’ call for help, state Senate president pro tempore Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, told an Arkansas News Bureau reporter that he doesn’t think the issue can be handled properly in a special session.
He didn’t say why the Legislature failed to act during its fiscal session earlier this year. The problem was certainly apparent by then, and the answer is money.
The sheriffs are asking the state to cap the number of state inmates that collectively can be held in county jails at 1,600 statewide. They also want the state Department of Correction to be able to contract with third parties.
A spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe said that before he calls a special session the sheriffs’ association needs to provide a clear legislative proposal, and then he needs to see a consensus among lawmakers that the issue warrants immediate attention.
“Short-term” backlogs had been expected in the county jails, the spokesman said, and the state came up with 382 more beds. But that hasn’t been nearly enough.
State Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, who sponsored some of the legislation tightening restrictions on parolees, acknowledged the problem in an interview and said the state should look at long-term fixes, such as building new facilities and finding alternatives to locking up some parole violators. “Public safety has a price,” he said.
Of course, Sanders is right. Let’s get the Legislature together and find a way to pay the price, instead of just passing the buck to the counties.
In last week’s column I said that multiple absentee ballots in several counties were not counted in the primaries because they lacked “photo IDs.” A Craighead County election commissioner, Keith Chrestman, points out that the law actually allows an absentee voter to provide other documents in place of a photo ID, including a utility bill, bank statement, government check or paycheck. That makes compliance somewhat easier.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.