FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Prior to the pandemic, the Washington County jail long faced overcrowding issue. A new criminal justice assessment listed ways to fix that, including addressing inmates in jail because they can’t afford bail tied to missing court dates.
The county’s quorum court commissioned the assessment, compiled by the National Center for State Courts. The study indicated failure to appear charges are among the most-frequent severe charges for inmates, with 12.9% having it listed as their worst charge. This means for many, it’s worse than what they were charged with in the first place.
“The most serious crime listed for people often is failure to appear,” said Madeline Porta, The Bail Project’s Operations Manager. “I think it’s clear from the report that plays greatly into the jail population.”
The penalty for first-time failure to appear offenders is a 1,000% increase on their initial cash bond a judge set. This means someone who was given a $5,000 bond would see it increase to $50,000, which many cannot afford.
Porta said the reasons someone misses a court date could be one of many things, including jobs they can’t skip, children they must care for, or those, “who have court-order obligations they need to take care of and they’re unable to do so simply because they don’t have access to transportation.”
The Bail Project provides free court-date reminders and transportation, Porta said, and reliable travel is difficult for people who live in rural areas.
Matt Durrett is the Prosecuting Attorney for Washington County, and he said people who anticipate missing a court date need to call the prosecutor’s office beforehand. It can often be worked out.
“People who don’t show up for court, that frustrates the system and it drags things out,” said So that’s why those people have unusually high bonds.”
Durrett said the county’s addressing inmate population during the pandemic, releasing hundreds of non-violent offenders to thin out the jail and lessen the chance for a COVID-19 outbreak. Judges are often purposely setting lower bonds to keep people out of jail if they meet a certain criteria.
“The sheriff’s office has purchased their own [electronic] monitors, and they’re running their own program,” Durrett said. “So, hopefully that’s something going forward we’re going to be able to continue to do.”
People will still be penalized for missing court, Durrett said, something Porta said she understands.
“If a person has failed to appear in the past, that deserves additional looking at,” Porta said.
Judges, prosecutors and the sheriff’s office need to work together to make the punishment more reasonable, Porta said.
“There are different ways we can support people when they’re out to actually make their court appearances,” Porta said.