Building a larger jail may help Crawford County recover money lost because of nonpayment of fines and housing prisoners in other counties, according to justice officials.
Both Crawford County Sheriff Ron Brown and District Judge Steven Peer support a three-quarter percent sales tax to pay for a new 270-bed detention center because it will not only make the county safer but also help recover some lost revenue, they said.
With so many defendants released on signature bonds - at least 437 of the more than 728 misdemeanors arrested just this year, none of which spent more than a few days in jail even after sentencing - many criminals are not afraid of doing jail time, Brown said.
From 2010 to 2012, fines collected by the district court in Van Buren decreased 42.84 percent, Peer said.
A software change prevents Peer from providing information from 2013, but he is seeing the same trend in 2014 collections, he said.
While Peer acknowledges some of the loss to the economy and fewer tickets being written, he also notes that the number of cases between 2011 and 2012 only decreased by 6.75 percent.
"I attribute a lot of that on not being able to have the jail," Peer said.
Not having jail space to house prisoners prevents the county from enforcing fine payment, community service and court orders, Peer said.
"The next thing we hear from them, they’ve been arrested on a felony," Peer said. "While they were avoiding us, they went out and did something worse."
Since he’s been judge, Peer has made a "big push" for alternative sentencing, particularly in regards to rehabilitation, he said.
Alternative sentencing keeps the jail population down and gives the defendant an opportunity to show responsibility and accountability, he said.
"The problem is, the definition of alternative sentencing is an alternative to something else, and that something else is jail," Peer said.
Peer went on to say that at least a portion of the decrease in cases can be put down to fewer officers on the street because more are needed to transport prisoners that are being housed outside the county.
Brown said it is impossible for him to track the amount of money spent transporting prisoners housed outside the county because there is no transportation division within his department, but it is not just a matter of dropping off a prisoner and picking them up when they are released.
For outside prisoners, deputies also have to attend to their medical needs and transport them back and forth to court, Brown said. That means less of the fuel budget can go toward patrol, he said.
Crawford County loses money in other ways, namely anticipated revenue from the Arkansas Department of Correction for housing inmates sentenced to the ADC.
Detention centers receive $28 a day for each inmate they house, and Crawford County anticipates an annual revenue of $220,000 each year from the ADC, Brown said.
In 2013, Crawford County only received $74,769 from the ADC, Brown said, and paid out $117,932 to house inmates outside the county. That is a $263,172 total loss in revenue, he said.
By those measurements, Brown calculates Crawford County has lost more than a million dollars in revenue since 2007, about half of that in the last two years.
"I don’t know that having a bigger jail will save the county money, but I think we’re definitely going to recoup a lot of lost revenue," Brown said.
The sales tax issue is on the May 20 primary ballot, and early voting begins Monday.