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County jail in crisis

Will voters pay for a solution?

by and

SELF-DEFENSE: Calvin Penegar.
  • SELF-DEFENSE: Calvin Penegar.

“That’s my stuff!” 15-year-old Emmanuel Tanner hollered recently in the alley behind his North Little Rock house. A stranger was walking away with a familiar-looking backpack filled with Tanner’s DVD player, a jar of coins and other electronics.

The teen-ager had come home from school to find the back door open. The crook had been through the bedroom Emmanuel shares with his brother. Their beloved XBox was gone.

Now Tanner’s mom wants out of the neighborhood. Neighbor Calvin Penigar does, too, victim of a break-in a day later.

The suspected burglar in both cases? Someone who should have been in jail.

“They picked the dude up,” Penigar said. “The next day, the jail let him out because they had no room.”

Penigar, a self-employed electrician, bought new doors for his rent house and a gun. Jacqueline Ridgel, the mother of the two teen-aged boys, says she is just grateful the man with the backpack didn’t hurt her son.

After racking up at least nine burglary charges and being arrested again, the alleged burglar, Norris Jackson, is now being held in jail without bond.

But a lot of guys like him aren’t seeing the inside of the Pulaski County Jail. Suspects deemed “non-violent” — including thieves and drug dealers — are more likely to see a little blue sheet of paper that cites them out of custody or a copy of a one-page agreement that orders them to appear in court. Sometimes they do. Sometimes not.

“These guys are saying, ‘The jail’s full, isn’t it?’ ” said Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley. “They know. They know, and they’re willing to pay the price of the two- or three-hour inconvenience that’s gonna result in them being given, literally, a traffic citation to appear in court. And then they’re not appearing.”

Eight months ago, things were a little different. The County Jail could hold 1,125 prisoners. Today, after deep cuts to the county’s 2006 budget, there’s only enough staff to hold 880.

The lockup hasn’t held so few prisoners since 1995 — the year after it opened as a regional facility. The county has grown no smaller.

“We’ve being talking about the jail being closed [to new prisoners] now for years, and nobody even blinks,” said Randy Morgan, who has been the jail’s administrator under Sheriff Randy Johnson since 1997.

“But we’re just running out of resources to manage here,” Morgan said, raising his voice in his office at the jail. “When we start going into letting some violent people go, then you just go, ‘Well, what is the population willing to accept?’ ”

The expanded jail opened in August 1994 with hopes that it would end city-run jails and constant prisoner backlogs. Instead, there’s been a constant battle to keep the jail population at a safe level, within constitutional limits.

Police officers across the county long ago learned to radio and ask if the Roosevelt Road jail was open. Now, they’ve stopped asking. The jail has been closed to new prisoners for all but 12 days of 2006.

“I think we sowed the seeds of our current problem when we didn’t vote for a funding source for operations when we built the original jail to start with,” North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Hays said. “I don’t think any of us really felt that this day wasn’t going to come.”

A countywide public safety task force was appointed this spring to find a solution. It includes the mayors from the five cities that contribute money for the jail, County Judge Buddy Villines and members of the public.

June 21 is decision day. The task force will decide whether to recommend, yet again, a county sales tax increase (see timeline). There are few other financial options. Current high publicity about a rising murder rate, not exactly good news, could be a political tonic.

The F-word

This F-word — frustration — gets a lot of play throughout Pulaski County’s criminal justice system, from patrol officers and police chiefs to bail bondsmen, jailers, prosecutors and judges.

“This is the most frustrating I’ve seen it in my entire career,” said Little Rock Police Chief Stuart Thomas, who started with the department in 1978. “No issue has consumed more of my time than the county’s jail. It shouldn’t be that way. It is a day-by-day drag on the efficiency of this department.”

Much of the frustration comes from the contradiction of having one group of police assigned to catch criminals and another group tasked with letting them loose. It’s a catch-and-release system, but hardly sporting.

“It’s hard to stomach that, it really is,” said North Little Rock Patrol Capt. Mike Davis, who pulls five officers off patrol duty each month to staff the 24-hour holding facility known as “Northside.”

Since the beginning of this year, Little Rock and North Little Rock police and the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office have rotated regular duty shifts at the lockup, which is owned by the county and operated by the departments that hold prisoners there. Sherwood and Jacksonville have their own tiny short-term units, also run by police.

Intended initially as a way station for prisoners who couldn’t be booked into the “Southside” jail on Roosevelt Road immediately, Northside has become a processing hub where arrestees are either quickly released or locked up until a daily transport to Southside. Those who don’t fit in the jail stay locked up in one of five communal cells until district court appearances, or until 24 hours are up — whichever comes first.

“It makes me sick that there’s nothing we can do,” North Little Rock patrol officer Amy Cooper said just before releasing a woman arrested for failing to appear in court on prostitution and drug paraphernalia charges.

“How long is it going to be?” the accused prostitute, dressed in a pink polka-dotted miniskirt, asked from the backseat of Cooper’s patrol car. The answer, after finger prints and another agreement to appear in court: Less than an hour.

“They’re going to leave the jail before we finish our paperwork,” Cooper said … [Northside], at this point, is a daycare center.”

Sgt. Heath Helton, a member of the Little Rock SWAT team, has spent several recent shifts on this “daycare” duty — shuffling paper, answering phones and feeding McDonald’s cheeseburgers to drunks and others held in the nondescript brick building just south of Interstate 40 near the Laman Library.

On a recent Friday night shift, Helton, along with a training officer from Little Rock, a North Little Rock motorcycle cop (who also happens to be SWAT-trained) and an intake officer from the Pulaski County sheriff’s office, processed dozens of prisoners on various charges — from robbery to public intoxication.

“You’ve got five hours to hold my ass,” one North Little Rock prisoner hollered as he was brought through two locked doors and then escorted to a “drunk tank” with padded walls and a hoseable floor. “I don’t care. I haven’t done shit.”

He was close enough; policy is to keep drunks at the holding facility for six hours unless they have other charges that warrant a longer stay.

Released about as quickly as the drunk was a Little Rock man who police had charged a few days earlier with two weapons and nine felony drug counts. According to an officer’s report, police stopped him for speeding in his Monte Carlo on Evergreen Drive and found a dozen different drugs, scales, a gun and a half-smoked joint in the car, plus a wad of cash and a switchblade in his pockets. Hours later, he walked out of the holding facility with a copy of an appearance agreement.

When the accused dealer appeared in district court a week later, Judge Lee Munson told the man’s attorney, “I assure you, if he shows up [on another charge] again, I’ll put a million dollar bond on him.”

In 1999, the prosecutor worked with the jail to create a list of citable offenses, allowing officers to release certain prisoners to keep the jail population down. Charges like breaking or entering, failure to appear, possession of firearms and most drug offenses are citable.

In April, Little Rock police cited out 334 people charged with theft, disorderly conduct and possession of crime instruments.

Another 362 Little Rock prisoners were processed through Northside that month, and of those, 97 were transferred to Southside. Another 35 were released on appearance agreements, like Helton’s accused drug offender. The remainder were held until they posted bond or made district court appearances. It is difficult to track where they went from there.

Many prisoner releases happen after district court, when bailiffs confer with jail officials and decisions are made.

“If our count is below 880, we take everybody,” said Maj. Shawn Smith, the number 2 man at the jail responsible for monitoring daily intake. “If the count is above 880, then we start filtering.”

In April, accused burglar Darrell Askew was one who filtered out.

Askew appeared in Little Rock District Court, accused of breaking through the drive-thru window at the USA Drug on Rodney Parham Road. Police found him hiding in the store’s ceiling, and a judge set a $10,000 bond.

But Askew didn’t pay the bond. Nor did he go to jail.

“Recognized,” his speed letter from the court read. “Refused to accept at jail.”

He was out. And within a week, he was picked up again. This time he was accused of breaking into a West Little Rock liquor store and stealing cash and a pistol.

“I know there’s worse criminals they have to keep, but I tell you what, this petty stuff — the time and effort it takes — it costs me,” said Brian Baker, owner of the Toddy Shop on Cantrell Road. “These guys who are doing it, they know it’s a game. They’re working the system.”

Systemwide slowdown

Many have feared that a declining prison population might produce a rising crime rate. Figures in Little Rock and Pulaski County are mixed.

Compared with the first quarter of last year, sheriff’s office reports of violent crime in the unincorporated area it covers were up 40 percent. Property crimes in the county rose nearly 19 percent.

In Little Rock, however, overall crime is steady compared with the first quarter of last year and there’s actually been a drop in property crime. But violent crimes are up 4 percent and the homicide rate is on target to exceed the 1993 record, when gang-banging won Little Rock national notoriety.

Still, the overall crime rate is below that of the mid-1990s and police aren’t ready to say any of the recent homicide suspects should have been in jail when they committed their crimes. At least one victim — accused of prostitution — had been recently released, however.

The jail always makes room for accused killers and rapists, but Police Chief Thomas sees a link between releasing minor offenders and a rising violent crime rate.

“When you don’t have the capacity to interdict and interrupt areas or places where violence is likely to happen, then you have an environment where it’s more likely to occur,” the chief said, pointing to his inability to lock up loiterers and prostitutes and people carrying guns and drugs. “It is extraordinarily curious that our violent crime moved up at the exact same time that the jail started closing.”

Meantime, numbers of outstanding warrants are also up. The sheriff’s office, which serves circuit court warrants, showed an average 27 percent increase in outstanding warrants each month this year, compared to last.

Those wanted for less serious offenses aren’t being sought out in many cities.

“We don’t actively seek to serve warrants,” said North Little Rock Chief Danny Bradley.

“Our hands are kind of tied,” said Lt. Jim Hansard, acting police chief in Maumelle. “I’m not going to spend manpower [to] get that person [on a warrant], and then we don’t have any place to put them.”

Even before warrants can be issued, investigators say cases are increasingly difficult to solve because witnesses are more reluctant to talk when they know a suspect could be back on the street.

And when suspects are arrested, the suspects often can’t be held before district court appearances.

“It’s terrible,” said Pulaski County District Judge Wayne Gruber. “Some of these instances [are] multiple drug offenses, a history of failing to appear, and they’re citing these people out and the people aren’t coming to court.”

In North Little Rock District Court, the number of failure to appear warrants nearly doubled in the seven months after October’s sweeping jail closure. In November, there were 165 no-shows in traffic and criminal courts combined. In the months since, that number has hovered near 300, peaking at 317 warrants last March.

In Little Rock Traffic Court, the number of failure to appear warrants issued in the last eight months has grown, too — but only about as fast as the number of tickets issued in that same span.

Circuit judges, who see the most serious cases, aren’t ready to declare a disaster.

Circuit Judge Willard Proctor spoke to the countywide jail task force this spring and advocated more jail beds and more prevention programs. He noted that requirements for his probation cases are increasingly hard to enforce.

But, he says, the county is not at its breaking point “just yet.”

“I don’t see the situation being so dire that the county can’t or won’t be able to operate,” he said.

Circuit Judge Chris Piazza, a former Pulaski County prosecutor who helped lead the campaign for the 1-cent sales tax that built the jail more than a decade ago, is supportive of another sales tax push. But he notes that today’s jail crunch is not yet at the 1989 crisis level.

“The circumstances [today] aren’t as severe as they were when we built the jail initially,” he said, recalling mattress fires at the overcrowded Little Rock city jail and the appointment-only decree at the county jail that once caused a murderer to be released by accident.

History repeats?

But for the prosecutor who fills Piazza’s former seat, a crisis point has arrived. All along, he says, this end was in sight.

“I think they realized there were some judgment errors made in planning and executing the new jail facility because they figured out how to get the money to build it but they didn’t figure out how to sustain it,” said Jegley, who is serving his 10th year as Pulaski prosecutor. “I think that was apparent when it opened.”

The campaign for the regional jail moved quickly from mid-1989 to early 1990. By February 1990, a one-year, one-cent tax for jail construction had passed and cities signed an interlocal agreement with the county.

The 20-year agreement, which has governed jail funding since 1994, wasn’t planned according to projected crime rates or anticipated expenses. It was based on what cities were paying for their own jails.

Villines was mayor of Little Rock at the time and negotiated hard to limit Little Rock’s cost.

“We thought we needed to show the board and the public some efficiencies and savings,” Villines said. “We said, ‘We’ll probably settle for [an] $800,000 or $900,000 [contribution] but let’s tender $700,000.’ So we did.”

And so the deal was made, with cities negotiating individually with the county.

Villines now says the cities “cut a fat hog” — especially since the county has paid for staggering cost increases over the years while city contributions have covered about 10 percent of expenses in recent years.

Villines realized the deal wasn’t so sweet when he moved across Broadway to the county judge’s office in 1991.

“When I got over here and started asking the question — ‘How much is it going to cost to operate?’ — no one could really give me a definitive dollar,” he said. “Then I finally got it, I looked at it, and I looked at what money we had to dedicate to it, and I said, ‘We’re in trouble.’ Right off the bat.”

Looking back, Circuit Judge Rita Gruber, who served as the appointed county judge when the agreement was signed, said she never expected it would be so ironclad.

“It wasn’t like the agreement for all time,” she said. “It was negotiated with the idea that it would be modified over the years … I think everybody thought it was kind a coup to get the cities to agree to anything at that time.”

A 1993 amendment to the agreement calls for renegotiation when jail costs rise. In the last decade, Villines repeatedly approached the cities for more money. And generally, they obliged “a little bit.”

But, from the county’s view, that money wasn’t enough.

“More and more, we began to hear the dialogue that said the cities need to put more money into [the jail], and we began to start saying, ‘Hey the county’s the one that’s really responsible for the jail so why should we do this?’ ” Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey said of the past years of jail discussions.

“Then, all of a sudden, the county allows $12 million to disappear and then throws us into a dramatic catastrophic crisis situation and their choice of how they would deal with their own finances was a big impact upon the law enforcement in the county,” Dailey said.

The $12 million is the amount the county spent out of savings as it operated at a deficit. Villines says he often cautioned against it. But he never vetoed a significant appropriation vote or an annual budget out of respect for the Quorum Court, he says. Spending in excess of revenue peaked at $5.4 million in 2004.

The Quorum Court endorsed employee raises, jail expansion, even new hires, with no promise of ongoing revenue to pay the total tab. And the biggest drain on the budget is the county jail. Salaries and benefits for jailers increased over the years. Food and clothing expenses increased as the jail population grew. Maintenance costs ballooned when the new jail was not so new anymore.

If, all along, the county had ignored the need to expand beyond the initial plan for 800 beds, perhaps the bank wouldn’t be broke, some argue. Instead, it upped capacity by more than 300 beds, beds it could not afford to operate.

“We, I, whatever, made a poor business decision not to draw the line,” Villines said. “But every police chief, every mayor, and our citizens wanted those folks off the street. It just kept going … We were spending down our reserves and stuff, but every year we kept finding a way to keep hundreds of bad guys off the street. How do I sit here as a leader of government and just tell folks, well, I’ve got a reserve fund over here, [but] I’m going to close down [the jail]. I just couldn’t do it — wouldn’t do it.”

There was little choice last fall. The county closed 245 beds and cut millions from the budget. And the cycle to find money to lock up more criminals began again.

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