FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — The Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition filed a five year moratorium on the expansion of Benton and Washington county jails. This development follows the Washington County Sheriff’s decision to file for Arkansans to vote on the expansion.
Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder said overcrowded jails has become more of a concern over the past 8 years. The issue subsided during the pandemic when elderly and non-violent, at-risk detainees were approved for release. However, the sheriff says many of those offenders are back in jail.
According to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, the jail releases around 300 inmates a month. Still, the current detainee population is around 130% of operational capacity.
“They’re filling back up. They’re now well above 700. We’re busting at the seams. On average, I’ve got about 125 people sleeping on mats on the floor,” Helder said.
The Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition said Arkansans shouldn’t be asked to vote on this big decision when there are better alternatives available. Sarah Moore with the coalition says more money should be spent on expanding mental health opportunities and cutting down on pre-trial incarcerations.
“The easy button solution is always this defacto solution to build more jails. If you put people over to the side in cages, then you don’t have to deal with them.” Moore said. “The truth of the matter is these community members are going to be coming back into our communities across Arkansas.”
Sheriff Helder worries those proposed solutions won’t be enough.
“I’m not turning my nose up at community activists that are trying to service in a different may– re-entry, mental health court,” Helder said. “With this expansion, we can address those issues. I too believe we need to make a difference in people’s lives and turn a corner with them.”
After the sheriff makes the request, the quorum court will decide whether voters will take up this issue. The court’s next meeting is May 26.