Washington Co. Jail getting American Rescue Plan funds for expansion, criminal justice advocates want funds to go elsewhere

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WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA/FOX24) — The Washington County Jail is getting American Rescue Plan funds to start the process of a jail expansion, but not all in the community think it’s a wise move.

The Washington County Quorum Court approved $250,000 at its August meeting to go towards engineering and architecture fees. The county is getting $46 million in ARP funds over the course of two years. Criminal justice reform advocates say there are better ways to spend this money.

“We need some more beds and more space to isolate people,” said Chief Deputy Jay Cantrell with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

He said they have put a proposal before county leaders.

“To modify our booking and release area to separate that, to expand our medical holding area, to expand our courtroom and to build some additional beds, our initial proposal had 230 beds,” he said.

Chief Deputy Cantrell said the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the need for the expansion. The Quorum Court approved the ARP funds with a vote of 11 in favor and 4 against.

JP’s Johnson, Marti, Simons, Ussery, Deakins, Ecke, Duncan, Dennis, Leming, Wilson and Pond voted to support the funds. JP’s Washington, Madison, Rios Stafford and Highers voted against it.

“We think it’s never too late to pause,” said Sarah Moore, Co-Founder of the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition.

Moore said this ARP funding is once in a lifetime, and it needs to be put towards other measure to reduce incarceration rates.

“We’ve yet to see $250,000 from the court go towards feeding anyone,” she said. “We’ve yet to see this money go towards mortgage assistance, or $250,000 go towards child care or job training.”

While the sheriff’s office sees the extra space and beds as a chance to distance people better, Moore believes that they will add as many people to the jail as beds are available.

She would like also like to see more money go towards hiring more criminal justice staff in the county, such as prosecutors and public defenders. She said court proceedings moving virtual during the pandemic is still causing issues for people who don’t have broadband internet access.

She also said using the pandemic funds to expand the jail now might be misleading.

“They wanted a jail expansion and thought our population was growing before COVID,” she said. “It’s interesting that this is now being tied to COVID and there’s a lot of concern about how this will be looked at from the federal government, given that this was truly supposed to be COVID response and relief.”

“We are grateful that the Quorum Court approved this funding,” said Chief Deputy Cantrell. “We think this is just one prong in a multi-prong approach to try and utilize these jail beds as efficiently as possible.”

Moore said AJRC will be hosting community cookouts in different justice of the peace districts to encourage people to come out and share their input on where they would like to see ARP funding go. The dates are still in the works, but we will keep you updated here at KNWA and FOX24.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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