State drops request for oral arguments in halfway house lawsuit

The state of Arkansas and the Department of Community Corrections have dropped a request for oral arguments in their challenge to Circuit Judge Rob Wyatt Jr.’s decision regarding the placement of halfway houses in Pine Bluff.

The Arkansas Attorney General’s Office notified the Supreme Court Thursday they were no longer requesting the oral arguments and instead will let the court decide the case only on the submitted pleadings.

In May, Wyatt ruled that the Department of Community Corrections (DCC) would not be permitted to open halfway transitional facilities on property it owns on the west side of Pine Bluff without going to the Pine Bluff Planning Commission and requesting a permit.

Wyatt also issued an injunction which prohibits DCC from operating the facility until it goes before the planning commission or the Pine Bluff City Council, or “until there are further orders of this court.”

The state filed an appeal of Wyatt’s decision with the Arkansas Supreme Court because the issue involves the interpretation of the state’s constitution and the appeal “involves issues of substantial public interest.”

Pine Bluff City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott filed the original complaint against DCC after the city council instructed her to take some legal action to try and prevent DCC from using four remodeled duplexes on property at Southeast Arkansas Community Correction, 7301 W. 13th Ave., for transitional housing for inmates who had been approved for parole but had no place to go.

A resident of the area, Ora Mays, brought the original complaint to the city council after reading about DCC’s plans in a newspaper and said she was concerned about children living in the area who could possibly be exposed to former inmates staying at the facility.

Community Corrections officials have said the planned halfway houses would hold about 30 former inmates who would be required to work and pay rent, as well as take care of the property. They would not be supervised 24 hours per day but there would be space in the facility for an office for a probation/parole officer.

Additional security measures would have included additional cameras, a new fence separating the halfway houses from the current DCC facility for women, and a new access road.

The department said they had not decided on the selection process for former inmates who would use the facility, or how long they would be permitted to stay.

During the court hearing in May, Assistant Attorney General Scott Richardson, who was representing the DCC, argued that the department was immune from a lawsuit on the issue and the department had been given the authority by the state legislature to use the property as it deemed necessary.

In response, Wyatt said state law requires the department to “comply with all existing local and state health codes, and to comply with zoning codes.”

The property was originally annexed into the Pine Bluff city limits in 1999, along with other prison property such as the Pine Bluff Unit, the Randall Williams Unit and the Diagnostic Unit, and was grandfathered in as a non-conforming use of the city’s zoning code, which classified the entire area as R-1 (Residential).

City zoning official Lakisha Hill said that the property used by the DCC and the Department of Correction was “legal non-conforming use” under the zoning code, and when the DCC “changed the use of the duplexes, it changed the legal non-conforming use of the property,” requiring approval from the city.

Hill said the same set of circumstances would apply if the Department of Correction decided to use the closed Diagnostic Unit for another purpose.