Leader Blues

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

TOP STORY >> Hanshaw: releasing prisoners is wrong

IN SHORT: Judge holds Lonoke County Sheriff Jim Roberson in contempt of court for releasing three state prisoners with leg monitors, but Hanshaw decides not to sentence the sheriff to his overcrowded facility, ruling that no one is above the law and he wants no repetition of what had happened before.

By JOAN MCCOY
Leader staff writer

Circuit Judge Lance Hanshaw ruled Tuesday that Lonoke County Sheriff Jim Roberson was in contempt of court for releasing three state prisoners on leg monitors while they waited for several months to be sent to rehab treatment paid for by the state.

But the ruling did not come with any penalty, not even a fine.

“This court has no intention of jailing Sheriff Roberson and certainly not in his own jail,” Hanshaw said. “The purpose of the hearing is to get the sheriff’s attention.”

The judge said he was not unsympathetic to overcrowding problems at the jail, but the women Roberson had released were sentenced to the Arkansas Department of Correction with a recommendation that they be sent to treatment facilities, and Roberson did not have the authority to release them.

“No one is above the law,” the judge said.

Roberson was contrite when he took the stand, saying he had nothing but respect for Hanshaw and had not intentionally disobeyed his orders.

“I think a lot of this court,” he told the judge.

He said in a later phone interview that the problem was in great part the result of a lack of face-to-face communication.
Jeff Sikes, the attorney for the county who represented the sheriff, argued that the measure for contempt was not present in Roberson’s actions.

“If willful intent is the measure of contempt, then Roberson is not in contempt,” Sikes said.
The judge disagreed.

Meanwhile, the population at the jail is growing.

“We’re 75 today. We’ve got 56 beds,” the sheriff said during the phone interview.

He did not talk to reporters immediately after the judge’s ruling. County Judge Charlie Trout-man, who attended the hearing, said he believed enough had probably been said already.

The rift between the judge and sheriff had already been the subject of several newspaper articles.

Sikes also declined to comment on the judge’s ruling.

Roberson said he could still release on bail or on leg monitors prisoners who have not been sentenced to prison. And he can release prisoners sentenced in district (formerly municipal) courts. But he will no longer release any prisoners sentenced to state prison without a court order.

When the crowding becomes a big problem, he will go to the quorum court about paying to send some prisoners to other jails if he can find any with enough room to take them.

“We used to send them to Dallas County (Fordyce) but they’re taking federal prisoners now,” Roberson said.

Farming out the state prisoners is the most economically feasible since lockups with room to take them are likely to charge $28 a day, exactly the amount the state pays the county to keep them.

But sending the prisoners elsewhere also means Lonoke County won’t collect the money for room and board, which is part of the operating budget.

The county has about $300,000 to add on to the jail. The money came from the state and was secured by State Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle. Roberson wants to add about 15 or 20 beds, but Troutman said the architect is dragging his feet with the plans.

The jail committee chose Taggart Foster Currence Gray Architects Inc., of Little Rock to design the addition, but after six months Troutman said all he’s seen is a rough draft.

The architects are concerned that the county doesn’t have enough money to do the project, Troutman said.
But he is concerned that if they don’t get it started soon and use the money the state has given them, they won’t get anymore.

Troutman said he and Roberson want to take the project as far as possible this year and try to complete it in 2007.

Roberson said trying to follow federal and state laws about overcrowding as well as Hanshaw’s orders that he not release any state prisoners awaiting room in treatment facilities is a lot to juggle.

But the two-term sheriff, who is running for a third term against former Sheriff Charlie Martin, said he doesn’t intend to complain.

“I asked for the job. I can handle it,” he said.