Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

TOP STORY >> Millions for jails, but is it enough?

BY GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader publisher

IN SHORT: Pulaski County faces quandary over jail funding and available space.

What will $20 million get you these days?

Not much if you’re trying to run the Pulaski County Regional Detention Center, which lacks the space to hold the thousands of people accused of breaking the law.

Members of the county’s Public Safety Task Force met last week at the Jacksonville Community Center, and the message they heard was clear: If they want to lock up criminals, the county jail needs at least twice the 880 beds that are now occupied.
But jails are expensive. It costs $51 a day to hold a prisoner, or $357 a week. Multiply that by 800 or so prisoners, and Pulaski County must spend $40,800 a week, or $21.2 million a year.

The county had budgeted about that much for last year but reduced spending to $18.2 million in 2006, which explains why the county jail cannot accept more prisoners. Only the most violent cri-minals stay be-hind bars, while thousands of others go free to await their trials, which can take months or years.

The county has had to cut back the use of its 1,125-bed facility for lack of operating funds and funds to repair dilapidated cells.

Ron Quillin, the county’s comptroller, said the purpose of last week’s public meeting and others that are coming up is to inform committee members of the county’s finances and then decide how much to spend on the jail.

Sherwood Mayor Bill Harmon, a Public Safety Task Force Member, suggested at last week’s meeting that the county ask for a quarter-cent sales tax for more jail beds in hopes of reducing crime.

Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley has requested 2,000 jail beds to hold lawbreakers, but that kind of expansion would require new facilities and a huge investment.

District courts in Pulaski County handle some 7,500 cases with some 13,000 felony counts, he said.

Little Rock’s murder rate, he lamented, ranks with Miami, among the highest in the nation.

“Multiple felony offenders are pretty much the only ones going to prison,” Jegley told the task force.

Other inmates know they’ll be out of the jail in two to three hours, while most are never even picked up, he said.

Jegley said, “The jail has been closed for nearly 90 days this year,” when it lacked additional space for prisoners, who often stay in city jails or go free.

“There’s a generation out on the streets who know there are no consequences because of the way we do business,” Jegley told the committee. “Only a minuscule percentage are held accountable. If we could get only half the people locked up, they’d get the message.”

But Pulaski County, like the county school district, has been reeling financially. The county has seen its general fund reserve dwindle from $12 million in 2000 to just $1.5 million today.

More than 25 percent of the county’s $98 million budget, or $26.6 million, goes to roads and bridges; $8.9 million is spent on circuit courts, prosecuting attorney, the public defenders and operation of the courthouse; $11.1 million goes to the collector, assessor and the treasurer.

The county’s discretionary fund is put at $43.15 million, of which two-thirds, or $28.5 million, goes to the sheriff’s department. But it took a 15 percent cut this year, including the dismissal of 120 positions, leaving the department and jail underfunded and understaffed.

In order to save money, the county cut the number of modules, from 1,125 last year, down toward 800. Finally, 80 more beds were made available when the cities within the county, including Jacksonville, Sherwood, Little Rock and North Little Rock, agreed to kick in one-time money to help. The extra money pays for jailers, food, utilities and medical supplies necessary to house the additional 80 inmates.

The committee heard several options on how to increase bed space, from as few as 192 minimum-security barrack beds, then 296 medium and maximum security units and an additional 320 medium security beds for a total of 808 newly constructed beds.

Cost of construction would range anywhere from $4.5 million to $34.1 million to increase the number of beds from the current 880 beds.

Additional operating expenses would be between $2.1 million and $15 million a year, but even that kind of investment won’t keep most violators in jail. The Public Safety Task Force will meet again at 7 p.m. May 3 in Maumelle.