Columns » Max Brantley

What now?

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Now that voters have turned down a sales tax to restore staff for the County Jail, county officials must decide what comes next. Another reduction in jail beds seems the likeliest immediate fallout and release of more people better held in jail.

The anti-tax demagogues generally have offered little more than bland assurances that there’s plenty of money available to keep the public safe. But some people do have some ideas, including the following from a local government professional that I pass along as food for thought:

• No more expensive special elections, certainly not two months before a general election in which a far more representative turnout would participate. Clearly, the lack of clutter allowed opponents to get uncommon attention for free media coverage.

• County officials blame old federal litigation for a cap on jail prisoners. But that case has been settled and dismissed. Jails all over the country routinely operate over a facility’s stated capacity. Why can’t we stack more prisoners in the existing space, as long as staffing guidelines are followed?

• County Judge Buddy Villines needs to stop complaining about the interlocal agreement that makes the jail the county’s responsibility. He can’t claim ignorance, having been Little Rock mayor when the deal was struck. Also, the cities have contributed in excess of what the agreement requires annually. It is also a fiction that the cities “don’t pay their share.” Most of the county’s money comes from sales and property taxes collected within the limits of incorporated areas.

• Convert an unused school into barracks to book and hold DWI offenders, with the cost shared by all local governments. The barracks could provide transportation for inmates to jobs during the day and also alcohol rehab programs. There’d be guaranteed incarceration for offenses, but no impact on the jail.

• Increase use of electronic monitoring of minor offenders and people on bail. Local governments could pass ordinances that require sensors in trouble areas — where alcohol is sold, for example — that would sound an alarm when someone with an ankle bracelet strolled in.

• Instead of studying how much money is needed, study what kind of jail is needed. Exactly how was the estimate for 1,600 beds reached? Would we really need that many if home detention, alternative sentences and different handling of DWI offenders were provided?

• Consider a residential alternative school for disruptive students.

• Press the state for more than cash payments to counties for backed-up state prisoners. The state could, for example, provide guards, medical care and education programs for youthful offenders. A substantial sum could be saved, my source claims, by sending prisoners to UAMS for free medical care.

• Rather than paying the large cost of transporting prisoners to district courts around the county, let the district judges set up a schedule to handle initial appearances, pleas and other routine proceedings at the jail.

Yes, some of this would cost money. That’s why I never fully understood the criticism from those who said they preferred prevention and treatment programs to expanding the jail. Those programs are costly, too, and at best long-term solutions. Meanwhile, revolving-door crooks are breaking into a home near you.


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