WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — The Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition has started a petition for a special election in response to the Washington County Quorum Court voting in favor of allocating around $18 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to a jail expansion.

This comes after voters voted “no” to a sales tax that would go towards expanding the jail in the November election. A smaller proposal was brought before the quorum court and voted on December 15. That allocated over $18 million for adding around 230 jail beds and expanding the medical, holding and intake areas of the Washington County jail.

The AJRC announced the petition on Thursday. Leaders of the organization don’t believe the expansion is needed. They think the jail could come up with alternative solutions to deal with overcrowding concerns.

“Pretrial services, mental health court — those are two things we could implement quickly and efficiently,” said AJRC co-founder and Washington County Justice of the Peace, Beth Coger.

Washington County Sheriff Jay Cantrell doesn’t think it will be enough. According to Cantrell, the jail should be holding 580 to 600 detainees, but they’re currently holding 750 to 800 detainees.

“I don’t think that mental health court or pretrial services are going to get 150 people off the floor in the Washington County jail. I think that we have seen that our population has bloomed and really grown, just our population of our county and our region,” said Cantrell.

Coger references the Final Rules issued by the U.S. Department of Treasury. An excerpt of the document is listed below.

Because, in all cases, uses of SLFRF funds to respond to public health and negative
economic impacts of the pandemic must be related and reasonably proportional to a harm caused or exacerbated by the pandemic, some capital expenditures may not eligible. For example, constructing a new correctional facility would generally not be a proportional response to an increase in the rate of certain crimes or overall crime as most correctional facilities have historically accommodated fluctuations in occupancy. In addition, construction of new congregate facilities, which would generally be expected to involve expenditures greater than $1 million, would generally not be a proportional response to mitigate or prevent COVID-19, because such construction is generally expected to be more costly than alternative approaches or capital expenditures that may be equally or more effective in decreasing spread of the disease. These alternatives include personal protective equipment, ventilation improvements, utilizing excess capacity in other facilities or wings, or temporary facility capacity expansions.

Department of the Treasury

Coger is worried the decision to allocate money towards a jail expansion violated the rule and could hurt taxpayers in the long run.

“If this goes through, we’re very likely looking at having to repay that money to the federal government at some point,” said Coger.

Cantrell said legal counsel has looked at the rule and feels confident these ARPA funds are adequately distributed.

“We’ve got opinions from legal counsel, and we believe that ours is closely enough tied to the COVID mitigation portion,” said Cantrell.

According to Cantrell, the COVID-19 situation at the Washington County Jail is a continuous issue. This funding approved by the quorum court will go towards making sure when detainees need to be separated either for testing positive or being exposed to COVID-19.

Cantrell said as of Thursday, 10 female inmates were sleeping in a small court holding cell that tested positive for COVID-19 and had to be separated. Out of the 782 detainees, 31 had COVID-19 on Thursday. However, 131 were exposed to the virus and had to be separated.

“That’s why they approved it, they didn’t approve money to build a large-scale expansion, which was going to cost about $100 million. This is a small increase to our operating efficiency that will help us manage the communicable diseases that come in,” said Cantrell.

Cantrell said it’s good we have a system of government where people can bring forth an issue that they believe in like the AJRC is doing, but he thinks the situation with jail capacity needs to be addressed, both for COVID-19 and otherwise.

“I’m sure they’re a very passionate group and very committed to their cause, but as the sheriff, I’m committed to run a safe and humane constitutional county jail. And, we’ve got to have some relief too,” said Cantrell.

The petition needs around 8,000 signatures to trigger a special election. The Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition is hopeful that the quota will be met. Organizers have until Feb. 21 to gain the signatures.

Coger said members of the AJRC will be at St. Paul’s Church every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. trying to gain additional signatures. They will start their petitioning on Saturday, January 7.