WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) – The Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition is making a final push to get signatures for a petition against the Washington County Jail Expansion. The Washington County Quorum Court approved ARPA funds for the expansion on Dec. 15.

The proposal allocated over $18 million that will go towards adding 230 new jail beds and expanding the medical, holding and intake areas of the Washington County Jail.

If the group gets enough signatures, the decision will be brought to voters in a special election. Right now, the coalition is a couple of thousand signatures short of its nearly 8,000 signature goal.

Sarah Moore, the executive director of the AJRC, said it’s going to come down to the wire, and every vote is going to count. According to Moore, the people made their voices heard in November when they voted “no” for a sales tax initiative that would have funded a larger jail expansion.

The expansion approved by the quorum court would focus on COVID-19 mitigation, according to Washington County Sheriff Jay Cantrell.

Moore said through the pandemic, the need for mental health resources and recovery resources skyrocketed. According to Moore, there is a dire need in the community for those resources, as an alternative to the jail expansion. She’s also worried the expansion is violating the final rules issued by the U.S. Department of Treasury.

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.

U.S. Department of Treasury

“We feel like in the years to come when we’re audited, the taxpayer will have to pay for these funds, and we don’t know what that’s going to do to our community,” Moore said.

KNWA/FOX24 talked with Cantrell in January. He said legal counsel looked at the rules, and he’s confident the ARPA funds will be adequately distributed. KNWA/FOX24 spoke with Cantrell again on Saturday, and he emphasized the importance of the expansion for COVID-19 mitigation.

“We know that COVID is here to stay. So, what this will do is give us smaller housing units to better isolate and segregate people that aren’t positive,” Cantrell said.

Cantrell is also concerned about overcrowding and thinks this could help fix the issue. According to Cantrell, the jail is at about 130% of operating capacity and it’s been that way since 2018.

Capacity is still an issue, even when releasing around 400 inmates a month.

“It’s very important that we get this going– for the safety of our deputies and safety of our detainees, and then just to get people off the floor,” Cantrell said.

The Washington County jail expansion for COVID-19 mitigation recently went up for bid. Cantrell said of the 25 sections, a few weren’t bid on, which he found slightly concerning. Some bids that were voted on were priced higher than he wanted them to be.

The project manager is trying to reach out to other contractors in the River Valley area and further south of the state to see if any are interested in future bids. Cantrell is hopeful that will happen in March.

“If we don’t get the bids that we’re hoping for, yes, it will delay the project,” Cantrell said.

Cantrell said preparing the site for construction could start a few weeks from now.

As for how Cantrell feels about the petition against the jail expansion, he said he is happy to see the group exercising their right, but he added that it’s critical for the expansion to continue forward.

“It will not be good for Northwest Arkansas to have a jail that’s chronically overcrowded and house the people that need to come to jail. It won’t be beneficial for the quality of life,” Cantrell said.

If the coalition doesn’t get the signatures it needs, the AJRC will keep looking ahead.

“We’ll continue looking at other ways that we can decrease the harm that comes from these COVID dollars– that it turns into an investment for our community,” Moore said.

The group has until Tuesday, Feb. 21 to gather nearly 8,000 signatures.