Leader Blues

Saturday, September 09, 2006

EDITORIALS>>Vote for tax, despite doubts

We wish in vain for the perfect tax proposal, one that addresses a need that everyone concurs is unavoidable with a remedy that everyone considers wise.

The county jail tax — a proposed one-fourth of 1 percent sales tax — is not such a proposal, but we nevertheless recommend that people vote for it Sept. 12 or in the early voting that has already begun. Our reasons are not simple.

The very earnest proponents of the tax and the diehard opponents make the question very easy — on the one hand, criminals are running amok because we have no place to put them or, on the other hand, profligate local governments want the taxpayers to bail them out again with another regressive tax. If both sides haven’t bombarded you yet, they will by Tuesday.

As with every tax proposal we have ever seen, such generalities do not do the question or the voters justice. The crisis in this instance is one that bothers everyone. Local jails, like the state penitentiaries, are all filled to the capacity allowed by law, and police agencies throughout the county are having to free suspects as soon as they are picked up because there is no place to put them.

The state is releasing hundreds of convicts ahead of their parole dates to free beds in the penitentiaries so that inmates from clogged county jails can go to prison to serve their sentences.

But the state cannot safely speed the release of convicts fast enough to be of much help to Pulaski County. Police agencies, like the victims of crime, are finding that solving a crime and making an arrest are meaningless.

The suspects are back on the streets the same day without even posting bond, as Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines has pointed out. So chaotic is the situation that a district judge has appointed a special prosecutor and special judge to try to lock up or fine the county sheriff because he helplessly will not lock up all the people that the judge’s court convicts, including drunks convicted of multiple driving violations.

After a period of a stable or declining crime rate, crime is sharply on the increase in Pulaski County, and without hard evidence you still must conclude that the constipated jail system is at least one cause.

A special jail tax would be down our list of remedies for this intolerable condition — ideally. Like Gov. Huckabee, we think the legislature should modify the sentencing laws that were passed the past 25 years so that there are alternatives — much, much cheaper alternatives — to long prison terms for people convicted of using illegal drugs and some other victimless or nonviolent crimes.

But fearing that they would be accused of being soft on crime, legislators will not vote for such legislation and Gov. Huckabee does not press the issue. Programs to avert crime in the first place are another remedy, and some of the money from the jail tax will go for those. It will be a small effort.

Here is another reservation: A tax of only one-eighth of a penny rather than one-fourth would be enough over time to address the simple crowding issue, though it would take longer to complete the physical jail improvements and get the expanded correctional operations going.

Jim Lynch, who was a member of the county public safety tax force that recommended the jail tax (and the only member not to vote for it), has computed revenues from the tax over the next 15 years, and it is fairly clear that after a few years the rising collections will begin to exceed the jail needs — that is, unless crime puts an ever-escalating burden on the system or hard times crimp the revenue growth.

But the only options now for voters are the fourth-of-a-cent tax or do nothing. That renders the question fairly clear for us. We don’t like the sales tax, but it is the only toll that will raise enough money in short order.

While a one-eighth percent tax would suffice over the long haul, the slightly higher tax (it would amount to $6.25 on the purchase of a $2,500 large-screen TV set) will send money back to the badly strapped cities of Jacksonville, Sherwood, North Little Rock, Little Rock and Maumelle.

If the tax passes, they will all halt their subsidies to the county jail and use the money every year for their own public safety needs: more police, prevention programs or whatever.

We do not begrudge the cities that extra relief nor will city residents.

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette, which almost uniformly opposes school and other local taxes, said the tax needed a cutoff date, say a couple of years out when the jail improvements are completed.

But the paper’s editor just does not understand the need. The tax is to run the jails, not just build them. Operating prisons is the big expense.

To build a large jail system only to shut it down for lack of operating money, which is part of the current problem, would be foolish indeed.

When each of us becomes a victim of crimes that could have been prevented by an efficient jail system, the little sales tax will become the perfect proposal.

Let us not wait for that day. Reservations about any tax are unavoidable, but they should not stampede us. Vote for the jail tax.