Leader Blues

Saturday, September 16, 2006

EDITORIALS>>Why it failed

One of the arguments against the quarter-cent sales tax for Pulaski County jails, the most philosophically persuasive was that we already lock up too many people for too long for too many reasons.

By defeating the jail tax, we draw a line in the sand and tell the government that it must adopt more realistic — that is, affordable and efficient — criminal-justice and correctional systems.

Maybe the policy makers will do just that. We would like to see it. But don’t count the days.

That issue cannot be addressed by the county judge and the quorum court or, for that matter, by the respective city governments that feed some of the prisoners to the jails.

It is a question for the legislature and the governor, and the current system is what for many years these elected officials thought the public wanted. People want miscreants of any magnitude, not just violent criminals, taken off the streets.

This started not last year but in 1977, when the Arkansas legislature, like assemblies in many states, detected an angry chorus from the voters demanding that the state get tough with criminals.

That year and at almost every two-year interval afterward the legislature passed tougher sentencing laws, first for repeat offenders and then repeatedly for drug offenders.

Prison officials in 1977 calculated the effect of the sentencing laws and warned of a rising need for more and more prisons as the longer sentences and tougher parole laws played out.

Six years later, their projections were right on target and the prisons hardly had an empty bed for more than a day or two ever again.

The state has not been able to build prisons fast enough to house them, and counties have had to build bigger jails to house people convicted until the state had space for them.

Now the state is releasing hundreds of inmates ahead of their parole dates under an emergency-release law — but not fast enough to help Pulaski County.

Gov. Huckabee every three or four years says the state should do something about the sentencing laws to check the prison costs (by far the fastest-growing segment of the state budget for two decades) and to give low-danger offenders a chance to redeem themselves and straighten out their lives.

He said some of the drug sentencing was too severe. The legislature in 2005 did approve a small reform, but generally lawmakers are terrified of being labeled “soft on crime,” so they will not vote for legislation that reduces sentences for anything. Huckabee knows that and does not push the issue.

So County Judge Buddy Villines and the quorum court will have to find a remedy to the declining jail capacity elsewhere. They should petition Pulaski County legislators to seek higher reimbursement from the state for providing surrogate prisons for state inmates and hope for the best.

The first task now is to prevent a further decimation of beds. Last year, some 250 beds were closed because the county did not have money to operate them according to court-ordered standards, and Villines said that without the new revenue stream from the tax the county would have to close another 60 or so beds soon because cities had warned that they could not continue the emergency subsidies.

Although the jail by law is an obligation of the county government, the cities cannot escape their responsibility. Little Rock and North Little Rock closed their local police lockups years ago and contributed a subsidy to the county. That subsidy has not kept pace with the growth of the jail population, and the cities must find efficiencies in their own beleaguered budgets to contribute more to the jail. It is upon their streets that suspects are released every day after being arrested and logged in.

The organized opponents of the tax have said there were magic bullets to solve the problem. We wait to see whether they are more realistic than the great cartoonist George Fisher’s famous and joyful remedy for prison crowding in 1983, the “Care-a-Cell.”