Crawford County’s public defender is asking area cities to pay for a new defense attorney in hopes of saving them money, he said.
Crawford County Public Defender Ryan Norris issued a proposal to the City of Van Buren to contribute $40,000 for the salary and benefits of a new defense attorney who would be dedicated to processing municipal cases.
Norris also plans to reach out to the cities of Alma, Kibler and Mulberry - the cities in Crawford County including Van Buren that he said are being most impacted by detention housing costs - for defense attorney contributions.
“Since I’ve been here - it’s been nine years - we haven’t had a jail to incarcerate misdemeanors,” Norris said. “Historically, they’ve been given fines and court costs to pay and been put on probation.”
Since the 300-bed Crawford County Detention Center opened in January, both the county and its cities have seen a significant increase in the number of offenders being arrested and jailed on misdemeanor warrants.
Cities are charged $30 per day per inmate to house offenders in the county jail.
While public defender offices, utilities and some staff are paid for by counties, salaries and benefits for public defenders themselves are paid for by the state, and public defenders only are assigned to defendants facing up to year of jail time, Norris said.
“Arkansas’ indigent defense system is set up in a schizophrenic way,” Norris said.
What that means, Norris said, is that a defendant arrested on a misdemeanor warrant for a Class ‘C’ misdemeanor such as contempt facing maybe 30 days in jail could wait 60 to 90 days for a court date.
“And who’s paying for that? It’s the municipalities,” Norris said.
According to Norris, from the time of the jail’s opening in January through the end of June, the total calculated cost to Van Buren for housing inmates was $83,365.
“We anticipate in Van Buren they’re going to pay in excess of $180,000 by the end of the year - when historically they’ve paid nothing,” Norris said.
For Alma, the costs from January to June were $33,200; for Mulberry, $5,040; and for Kibler, $4,200. These costs could be a major blow to city budgets, Norris said.
“Mulberry and Kibler, they’re the ones getting hit the worst, based on what their budgets must be,” Norris said.
Because the former county jail was too small to house offenders charged with misdemeanor crimes, most were released on signature bonds and the cities saw no costs for housing.
In a letter written to Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman outlining his proposal, Norris said the purpose “is to reduce the amount of unnecessary costs to house inmates charged with misdemeanors in district court.”
Norris outlined three sources of excessive jail fees being charged to the cities, including the example of contempt warrants for nonpayment of fines and court costs given above.
There are at least 10 years worth of Class “C” misdemeanor warrants backed up in district court, Norris said.
“There’s no telling how much liability each of the cities have floating out there now that we have a jail that will hold people,” Norris said.
Norris’ second given cause for jail fees is failure to appear warrants for inmates serving in the Arkansas Department of Corrections. A hold is placed on the inmate and once they are released from prison are transferred to the county jail to await court.
Warrants on inmates could be processed via mail and never require the offender to sit in the county jail, if the public defender had someone on staff that could devote their time to handling the cases, Norris said.
The final cause given for jail fees is cost for defendants who fail to appear in court - another issue that could be handled by having an additional attorney on staff.
Norris wants to create a full-time defense attorney position paid for jointly by the named cities devoted to handling these specific issues, and the cities would recoup their costs for the attorney by seeing a significant decrease in jail fees, he said.
Van Buren has taken no action so far on the proposal, Freeman said. He said on Thursday that his next step would be to inform the city council of the discussions taking place, and then follow up with Norris.
“I do think it’s worth having a discussion,” Freeman said. “If Ryan’s (cost) estimate is correct, and I think it is … my concern is about it growing higher. If his idea could save us money, I think we need to look at it.”
Both Norris and Freeman believe the number of inmates being arrested on active warrants will continue to increase, at least for a time.
“We did anticipate the rise in jail costs, but we didn’t anticipate it to this magnitude,” Freeman said. “We expected it to level off and it hasn’t.”
Freeman added that a sure answer for how area cities can meet the rising jail costs is still unclear.