For decades, prison overcrowding has sparked a financial tussle between the state and Arkansas counties.
In recent months, the issue has taken on greater urgency. It’s become more than a budget battle, according to county sheriffs. This is a security issue that is reaching crisis proportions.
Three sheriffs and a representative from Arkansas counties told the Senate Judiciary Committee that jails are more dangerous for staff and for people detained for minor offenses because counties have to house far more serious offenders than before. .
When state prisons are filled to capacity, newly convicted offenders are held in county jails until a space in a state unit becomes available.
Many Arkansas sheriffs and county finance officials say the state is not reimbursing counties enough for the cost of holding these inmates.
The Washington County Sheriff told the committee that 25% of the prisoners in his jail are state inmates. There has been an increase in violence against prison staff. In one year, the number of workers’ compensation claims rose from 30 to 75, all due to inmate attacks on employees.
The White County sheriff told senators that 15 years ago his jail typically held one or two prisoners charged with a capital crime or homicide. Now there are 15, he said.
The Arkansas Association of Counties’ chief legal counsel said that since 2015, counties have built additional space for 2,154 jail beds, but the state has not built new prison beds. prison since 2003. The problems facing county jails demonstrate the need for additional maximum-security space in state prison units, he said.
There are consequences caused by the backlog of serious offenders in county jails. In some counties, violent offenders are housed in the general population alongside drunk drivers and shoplifters. In other counties, the jail must let all felony offenders walk, to ensure there is room to keep violent offenders behind bars.
The Legislature appropriated about $20 million this year to reimburse counties for holding state inmates. This assumes an average of about 1,800 state inmates per day in county jails.
According to county officials, the average housing cost for these inmates is more than $63 per inmate per day. The state reimburses counties $32 per inmate per day.
For inmates awaiting a spot in a state penitentiary unit, the average length of stay in county jails has increased to 14 or 16 months, sheriffs said.
Sheriffs and the counties’ chief attorney have acknowledged several recent laws that have helped, such as a Senate bill enacted in 2021 that denies parole to repeat offenders who use a firearm.
In addition, the legislature has earmarked funds for four special prisons for people suffering from a mental health crisis. They receive treatment for a mental illness until they are stabilized, rather than spending time in prison.
Judiciary committee members said they would consider legislation to address the issue, as expert consultants predicted Arkansas’ prison population would continue to rise. By 2028, the prison population is expected to be 19,000.