Leader Blues

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

TOP STORY>>Sheriff: Inmate release is valid

IN SHORT: Roberson says he made a deal with judge to allow nonviolent prisoners to go free because of overcrowding.

By JOAN MCCOY
Leader staff writer

Lonoke County Sheriff Jim Roberson has complained about crowding at the jail for years, and he has released some prisoners in the past to make way for more dangerous criminals.

That is why he is perplexed by an order Monday from Circuit Judge Lance Hanshaw to appear in court Tuesday and explain why he is still strapping monitoring devices to pri-soners and turning them free until there is room for them in the prison system rehab programs.

Roberson said he hasn’t released anyone sentenced to the Arkansas Department of Community Corr-ections since Hanshaw issued an order on July 5 to stop.

The release of three women, all nonviolent drug offenders, prompted Hanshaw to order the sheriff to put the prisoners back in jail.

The sheriff insists there was no room for the three women in the county jail when he released them.

“At the time I let these out, I had 18 (with only 11 beds for female prisoners in the jail), so I just put them on ankle bracelets so I would know where they’re at,” he said.

Roberson said he is most confused by Hanshaw’s change of heart about releasing non-violent drug offenders.

Before the July 5 order, he and the judge had a verbal agreement that releasing some prisoners was acceptable. In fact, the sheriff said, the judge released three without ankle bracelets.

“I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve just done what I’ve always done,” Roberson said.

Hanshaw was not available for comment, but an assistant told The Leader he would not talk anyway. He does all his talking from the bench, she said.

“I’ve always respected the judge even before I was sheriff,” Roberson said. “I always thought he was tough, but I always thought he was fair.”

But recently, the sheriff said Hanshaw’s behavior seemed erratic. “What he wants changes from one day to the next,” he complained.

Roberson said Tuesday he had not seen any paperwork on the order for him to appear in court next week and he believes its release to the media could be political.

“I’d like to see the fax number it came from,” he said.

On Tuesday, the census at the jail was 65 (nine over the maximum allowed) and included the three women Roberson had previously released.

Roberson said he called them after he heard about the judge’s order and they turned themselves in Monday evening. “One of them had a baby who was very seriously ill,” he said. “She needed to be at home and she wasn’t going to be doing anybody any good by staying in jail six months before she went into treatment.”

Roberson said prisoners wearing the ankle bracelets are non-violent offenders. Their activity while wearing the bracelets is limited. They are confined to their homes most of the time. But some start going to church, which Roberson says he believes is a good first step toward getting off drugs.

“You can’t do anything without the grace of God,” he said.

The county has about $300,000 to add onto the jail. The money came from the state and was secured by State Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle. Rober-son wants to add about 15 or 20 beds, but County Judge Charlie 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 any more.

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