LITTLE ROCK – For decades prison overcrowding has sparked a financial tug-of-war between the state and Arkansas counties.
In recent months the issue has taken on a greater urgency. It has become more than a battle over budgeting, according to county sheriffs. It’s a matter of safety that is reaching crisis proportions.
Three sheriffs and a representative of Arkansas counties told the Senate Judiciary Committee that jails are more dangerous for staff and for people being held on minor violations, because counties have to house so many more serious offenders than they used to.
When state prisons are filled to capacity, newly-convicted offenders are held in county jails until space in a state unit becomes available.
Many Arkansas sheriffs and county finance officials say that the state does not sufficiently reimburse counties for the cost of holding those inmates.
The Washington County sheriff told the committee that 25 percent of the prisoners in his jail are state inmates. There has been a rise in violence against staff at the jail. In one year the number of workers’ comp claims increased from 30 to 75, all due to inmate attacks on employees.
The sheriff of White County 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 chief legal counsel for the Association of Arkansas Counties said that since 2015 counties have built additional space for 2,154 jail beds, but the state has not built new prison beds since 2003. The problems facing county jails demonstrates 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 general population alongside drunk drivers and shoplifters. In other counties, the jail has to let all misdemeanor offenders walk, in order to make sure there is space to keep violent offenders behind bars.
The legislature appropriated about $20 million this year to reimburse counties for holding state inmates. That assumes an average of about 1,800 state inmates per day in county jails.
According to county officials, the average cost of housing those inmates is more than $63 per inmate per day. The state reimburses counties $32 per inmate per day.
For inmates waiting space in a state prison unit, the average length of stay in county jails has increased to 14 or 16 months, the sheriffs said.
The sheriffs and the chief counsel for the counties recognized several recent laws that have helped, such as a Senate bill enacted in 2021 denies parole for repeat offenders who use a firearm.
Also, the legislature has appropriated funding for four special jails for people suffering a mental health crisis. They get treatment for mental illness until they are stabilized, rather than spend time in jail.
Members of the Judiciary Committee said they would consider legislation to address the problem, because expert consultants have predicted that the Arkansas inmate population will continue to increase. By 2028 the inmate population is predicted to be 19,000 people.