Easing the county jail crunch | Arkansas Blog

Friday, October 9, 2009

Easing the county jail crunch

Posted By on Fri, Oct 9, 2009 at 1:11 PM

A newsletter of interest arrived today from state Rep. Allen Kerr on his legislative efforts to make the state pay more when it crams county jails with state prisoners. Kerr has the reasonable idea that the state shouldn't force counties to house their prisoners below cost. He's still pushing legislation to increase reimbursement rates. A hearing is coming up soon.

(Maybe Pulaski County's greedy justices of the peace could hold off nabbing yet another pay increase whilst Kerr is trying to persuade the state of the county's abject poverty.)

PS -- This is NOT just a Pulaski problem. See Garland, Benton and Washington counties, to name a few with big backups, Kerr said. But it's particularly punishing here. Pulaski's reward for scrimping to open new jail beds was the arrival of more than 300 state prisoners. We essentially function as a cut-rate state prison and, so far, the governor hasn't been willing to do anything about it.


As many of you may have heard or unfortunately experienced, crime is a growing problem in Little Rock.  When I served on the Pulaski County Quorum Court, I helped put together the multi-year plan that would enable the County to begin to re-open jail beds that had been closed due to financial mismanagement in the county. 
One of our problems then was that the state only pays $28/day to the county for state prisoners that are awaiting transfer to state prisons.  This creates a problem for two reasons.  The first is obvious - every state inmate takes space that can be used to lock up criminals that are threatening our neighborhoods.  The second problem is that it costs Pulaski County an average of $52/day to house state prisoners.   
So, not only does the county suffer by not being able to lock up criminals, but the county also can't open additional beds because it is difficult funds in the budget when the state forces the county to accept these prisoners at that rate.   The state has two incentives to not move prisoners.  First is a lack of space in state facilities.  The other is the financial incentive the state has for not moving prisoners.  It costs the state an average of $56/day to house an inmate in state facilities, so the $28/day they force county jails to accept is a bargain. 
In the past legislative session I sponsored bill 1590 which would have increased the state reimbursement rate to the county Jails from $28/day to $40/day.  The Arkansas Department of Corrections habitually leaves these prisoners in the custody of the county system for months at a time waiting to be transported.  The problem is that they occupied badly needed jail beds that the counties need to hold incoming prisoners.  To add insult to injury, the state forces counties to accept a daily payment rate of half of what it costs the county to house and feed each prisoner.  House bill 1590 was approved through the house but with pressure from the Governor's office and those afraid of losing their pet projects, the bill was stopped before it could pass the State Senate.
Since it costs the Department of Corrections approximately $56/day this was a very good deal for the state and they did not want to give it up.   Unfortunately, this isn't a good deal for citizens who have to deal with rising rates of crime in their communities. 
At that time there was an average of about 150 to 200 state prisoners in the Pulaski county jail awaiting transport.    Fast forward to today,  you will find a new record total of over 326 state sentenced inmates being housed and fed by the Pulaski County detention center.  
It took four years for Pulaski County to find the funds to open another 100 beds and this past spring they finally achieved their long awaited goal, only to have to give them up to over 100 more state prisoners that the state refuses to transport. 
A call to the Department of Corrections revealed that the state had a back log of over 1600 prisoners all across Arkansas awaiting transport to the state penitentiaries. But had no real plan as to what they were going to do with the backlog of prisoners. Their concern was minimal --  and why not as they would much rather pay the counties the bargain price of $28/day instead of the $56/day per day it cost them to house their own prisoners.  This problem goes much further than just a financial concern as it has an effect down the line of our entire justice system.  The judges sentence the prisoners for breaking the law but have no place to send them to serve their sentences, as a result criminals have no fear of punishment and crime will and has risen.  Residents who are victimized by crime are paying a direct cost and all Arkansans are facing rising insurance rates due to the increase in crime. 
House Bill 1590 did not die; rather it was referred to review by an interim study committee meeting to be held at the capitol Room 272 on October 19th at 1:30 PM.  All who are interested in public safety and repairing our legal system to full operation again are welcome to come and share your opinion of keeping your loved ones and your property safe.  
It is the voice of concerned Arkansans that will need to speak loudly so pet projects don't take priority over the basic role of government - protecting its citizens.

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