WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — The Arkansas Department of Correction plans to release 369 inmates to help with overcrowding concerns. The list of inmates was released last week and is now awaiting approval from the state parole board.

The early releases were made possible by the Emergency Powers Act. Under the act, whenever the prison population exceeds 98% of capacity for thirty consecutive days, the Board of Correction can declare an emergency and move up the parole eligibility date for certain offenders by up to ninety days.  

The Washington County jail is one of many dealing with overcrowding. Washington County Sheriff, Tim Helder, said the jail has been overcrowded for years. He expects to lose 20 to 30 inmates as part of this early release, but he doesn’t think it will be enough. According to Helder, there are about 104 inmates that don’t have beds.

“Are we grateful that they are going to create some bed space? Of course. Is it going to have a big impact on us? Absolutely not,” said Helder.

A concern for Helder, is the strain it will place on the already stressed parole system.

“When they can’t keep up and lay eyes and hands on these individuals, well then what? What’s going to happen? More crime, reoffend?” said Helder.

The overcrowding debate in Washington County led to the controversial push for a Washington County jail expansion. The quorum court decided it will be on the November ballot. Even if voters vote in favor of the expansion, Helder said it could be years before the expansion is built and put to use. If it doesn’t pass, Helder is worried for the future.

“What do we do if it doesn’t pass? Some really hard decisions are going to have to be made about occupancy levels, our constitutional mandates, and it’s not good,” said Helder.

Jon Comstock with the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition disagrees. He thinks the issue lies with pretrial detainees who can’t afford bail.

“They just need to examine, how do we get folks that don’t have several $100 bills in their pocket? How do we get them out of jail, pretrial, when they haven’t been convicted of a crime yet?” said Comstock.

For those who are thinking about the public safety of inmates being let out early, Comstock said these aren’t people who are at high risk of reoffending.

“They have determined these people are ready to be released. They could have been released earlier, but we’re doing it under the Emergency Powers Act,” said Comstock.

This is the seventh time the Department of Corrections has allowed early releases under the Emergency Powers Act in 2022.