What’s the point?
Benton County officials appear ready to ask voters once again for authority to expand facilities that help administer justice and maintain public safety.
If Benton County’s announcement of plans to pursue a jail expansion sounds at all familiar, it could be because conversations about overburdened courts and overcrowded jails have become ubiquitous in Northwest Arkansas and other locales around the state.
Benton County joins a host of other counties in Arkansas in a pinch when it comes to incarcerating people who stand guilty of crimes in the state’s judicial system. The bottom line, a committee of officials involved in the criminal justice system says, is there’s more people in Benton County who need to be in jail and not enough space to hold them.
Washington County, it’s neighbor to the south, has been engaged in a public debate over whether to expand its jail — and how the county might pay for that — for years now. Its jail opened in 2005. It was a matter of months before crowding issues began rearing their heads. Whether its expansion, estimated to cost around $20 million to add 232 beds, happens hasn’t been decided.
Madison County’s jail woes are even tougher. It doesn’t have a county jail that can hold people more than 24 hours, because its facility couldn’t meet state jail standards. For several years, its housed its inmates in Washington County, but lost that option due to that county’s crowded conditions. Now, Madison County’s sheriff is forced to haul inmates to other jails, sometimes as much as 300 miles away.
Last week, Benton County Judge Barry Moehring told Quorum Court members the county’s criminal justice committee has decided to pursue expansion of the jail at its current location, including construction of a judicial center for criminal courts and the prosecutor’s office next to the jail.
That last part may sound really familiar, since Benton County leaders have struggled for several years to hash out expansion of its court facilities. Former County Judge Bob Clinard, back in 2015, proposed construction of a courts building near the county jail on SW 14th Street/Highway 102. That sparked a major community, shall we say, discussion about keeping the courts downtown, an idea the Quorum Court rallied around.
The issue was controversial, with the circuit judges opposing county plans — either downtown or by the jail — as inadequate. One could certainly argue the differences over the courts facilities led to Clinard’s defeat in the Republican Primary in 2016 by Moehring, a member of the Quorum Court who told voters he preferred the “maximum use of facilities we have downtown” through modest expansion and without raising taxes.
By 2018, though, the Quorum Court and Moehring had developed a plan for an extensive, $30 million building downtown for all the courts along with a request for a temporary one-eighth cent sales tax to build it. Voters in March 2019 rejected the plan 62% to 38%.
The ensuing years brought renovations and smaller-scale expansions to existing county facilities to make room for a new judgeship. Along the way, the county devoted a few million dollars to smaller-scale renovations of the jail to add space for inmates.
But those patches haven’t been enough, certainly not for the jail. Sheriff Shawn Holloway says the jail population is bursting and can’t wait. The region’s growth, officials say, is building pressure on the jail population and, to a degree, the jail has become a revolving door for some lower-level offenders who normally would spend some time in jail.
“Literally they are getting booked in and fingerprinted and they will be there four or five hours, long enough for us to process them and then walk out the front door,” Holloway said.
The new idea is to build a facility near the jail only for circuit courts that deal with criminal cases. Those are the courts of Robin Green and Brad Karren. The expectation is whenever another judge is added in Benton County to handle the caseload, it will also be one handling criminal cases. Building near the jail would make the operation of the courts far more efficient, removing the need for transport to downtown.
Courts handling civil cases would remain downtown, according to Moehring.
This idea still has a lot of details to be worked out. Moehring’s recent report was really just an effort to keep the Quorum Court, and thus the public, informed. It’s possible a measure may appear on the November ballot because of the urgency.
Will Benton County voters go for it? It’s impossible to tell, but we have no doubt Moehring, the judges, the prosecutors and public defenders — they’re not just making all this up. Jail crowding is a real problem for the day-to-day administration of justice. If some of it can be solved by alternative sentencing, that’s great. But the county — constitutionally obligated to provide for a jail — must do what’s necessary to meet the demand for actual jail space.
Remember what’s happened in Madison County? What a mess for the sheriff and the judicial system. And that’s happening because Madison County and its people haven’t taken care of business.
Benton County is growing far, far faster than Madison County. The burden on the existing infrastructure is real.
Not everything related to the region’s growth can be thrilling, such as construction of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art or the opening of many new restaurants or shopping outlets. With the good comes some difficult things, like demand for more jail space. One way or the other, Benton County has to take care of its business, or watch its judicial system’s effectiveness diminish.
Surely, nobody wants that, except maybe the people an expanded jail would house.