Building a new, larger jail in Crawford County is a matter of public safety, said the county’s sheriff.
Crawford County Detention Center has been on probation for several years after failing inspections by the Criminal Detention Facilities Review Committee, a panel of county residents appointed by the state.
CCDC was cited for, among other things, chronic overcrowding, under-staffing, improper inmate segregation and inadequate storage.
County residents will vote on a three-quarter percent sales tax to pay for a new jail that is expected to resolve the space problems during the May 20 primary election.
In the meantime, inmates who should be in jail - including convicted felons - continue to be bonded out in an effort to alleviate the issues and comply with state jail regulations, said Sheriff Ron Brown.
Previously, jail officials would house some inmates in jails in surrounding counties, but currently only eight inmates are house outside the county, said Capt. Brandon Trent, jail administrator.
Many county jails, such as Washington and Sebastian, are becoming too full to house outside inmates because of a backlog of felons waiting to be transported to the Arkansas Department of Corrections, Brown said.
Though only 27 of the 77 inmates in the Crawford County jail Monday were on their way to the state, convicts waiting to go to the ADC often contribute to 50 percent or more of the population, Brown said.
Those housed in Crawford County are not there on minor offenses.
All but a few male inmates, which make up about 85 percent of the population, are there for violent or sexual offenses, the "worst of the worst," said Chief Deputy Jim Damante.
All misdemeanors and many felons, on a case by case basis, are released with ankle monitoring or on various types of bonds, Damante said.
Right now 22 convicted felons waiting to go to the ADC are out on release bonds, which allow them to stay at home and call each night between midnight and 4 a.m. to see if they are up to be transported, Trent said.
What is worse, many of these felons may be racking up what is called "time spent." That means that the time they are spending at home is going toward reducing the time they have to spend in prison.
Another 14 inmates are at home with ankle monitors, Trent said.
"That’s where we’re at. We’ve got the worst of the worst in here right now, and now we’re looking for the best of the worst to let them out," Damante said.
In an effort to preserve public safety, it is the nonviolent or less violent offenders that are released, but it’s a small measure when weighed against the fact that many of those released commit new offenses while on bond.
Crawford County Prosecuting Attorney Marc McCune estimates 10-15 percent of inmates on release bonds commit new crimes while waiting to go to prison.
"The big issue we’re facing on repeat offenders is, there’s no immediate sanctions on them violating the law," McCune said. "The defendants know that, they know that we’re limited, and so there’s no fear of violating the terms and conditions of their sentences."
Petitions to revoke sentencing because of violations have doubled in the last two years, with circuit judges hearing 50-60 such cases each month, McCune said.
McCune added that many of the defendants that come through the Crawford County Circuit Court are repeat offenders. He gave an example of one woman who has been arrested 28 times in Arkansas since 1999.
The woman has five felony cases pending, with 15 failure to appear (FTA) charges and multiple charges of hot checks, thefts, forgeries and other nonviolent offenses.
Even when she is sentenced to the ADC, she will see very little time because her offenses are not violent, McCune said.
"She’s not a violent person but she’s a harm to society," McCune said.
From Jan. 1 to April 21, 1,330 people were booked in to the CCDC, Trent said. Those were made up of 728 misdemeanor charges and 611 felonies.
Of those, 437 people were released on signature bonds without paying a dime, to await their court dates, Trent said. This number goes up for repeat offenders, he said.
Trent said only 93 of those booked in were repeat offenders, but many had been arrested three or four times.
And word had gotten around about how easy it is to be released from CCDC, McCune said.
"In our jail, all our defendants know how it works, or if they don’t know how it works, they are soon educated," McCune said.
Defendants have quit paying fines, doing community service or even paying bonds because they know there is no room in the jail and no consequences, Brown said.
Misdemeanors need only wait, and they will be released on a signature bond. Other prisoners manipulate the system, such as claiming a medical need, for which the county cannot pay, to get bonded, Brown said.
"You’ve got to have some deterrent or incentive to change their behavior," McCune said. "They’re going to keep doing what they’re doing because there’s no fear of the system."
Releasing inmates is a major concern for Brown, he said. He would keep as many in the jail as possible, he said, but Brown is bound by the law and the U.S. Constitution to manage the jail population and protect prisoners’ rights.
"What do you think is going to happen when I let that person out that can’t bond and they go and harm somebody? That’s going to be my fault, but that’s what we’ve been doing for a long time," Brown said.
Issues with the jail are not just about population, but also design, segregation and protection, Brown said.
Even if the total population is within or under 88 - the number of beds in the jail - if inmates are not segregated properly it is considered overcrowded, Brown said.
Convicted criminals must be separated from pretrials, violent offenders from nonviolent, inmates with special medical needs from the general population, and so on.
With little space, it is nigh impossible to keep all inmates properly segregated, leading in part to the reason so many are released.
Which is why the proposed 270-bed jail is so important, Brown said.
"I’ve had people tell me, ‘Oh, all your problems are going to be solved when you get this bigger jail.’ No. No, I’m just going to have room for more," Brown said. "I’ve got 88 inmates that cause me headaches and problems. Imagine what 260 are going to cause? But, there’s a need for it."
If the new jail is built, Brown and Damante said it may get close to reaching capacity for a time, but they expect the population to decrease once offenders realize they will have to do jail time, they said.
Perks to having a new, larger jail include it being easier to run, designed with more technological advances and better security, Brown said.
That, and the new jail will have public restrooms.
"We’re still going to run it to the best of our ability on the least amount of money," Brown said.