Leader Blues

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

TOP STORY >>Magical answer eludes county

Leader senior staff writer

Don’t look for any magical solutions to an overcrowded, inadequate Pulaski County lockup when UALR’s Public Safety Task Force reports back to the Pulaski County Quorum Court as early as mid-June.

That’s according to Charles Hathaway, former president of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and chairman of the task force.

The Pulaski County Detention Center currently is approved for 880 inmates and sometimes holds as many as 900, according to County Judge Floyd “Buddy” Villines.

Villines said the UALR study is being paid for by the business-group 50 for the Future.

The Pulaski County Detention Center is frequently closed, accepting only the most violent criminals. It has been described as a revolving door, with nonviolent offenders so certain of quick or immediate release that they don’t bother to post bond.
County residents turned thumbs down last September on a quarter-cent dedicated sales tax to improve and expand the current jail, largely because residents felt the county could take care of the problem with existing funds if it spent its money more wisely.

Mike Coulson, president of Coulson Oil Company, said that public perception was that county funds were inappropriately spent, and that in large part accounted for the failure of the sales tax increase recommended by an earlier jail study group—of which he was a member.

Residents pointed to money spent on the Big Dam Bridge and downtown cable cars, but Villines and others have pointed out that those were dedicated funds not available for jail use.

Hathaway says roughly 82 percent of the county’s budget is already dedicated to personnel costs. Seventy-two percent of the county general budget is dedicated to the Detention Center and the Sheriff’s Office. That doesn’t leave much money to run the county, fix roofs and air-conditioning systems and repair and expand the existing lockup.

The county is required by law to provide a detention center, but in recent years, the cost of housing inmates has increased while the county’s share of the sales-tax revenues has decreased and Little Rock has responded only with relatively small, one-time funds to keep an additional 80 beds open.

To restore the public trust, the county should hire an outside auditor, Coulson said. “People want to know when the county says it’s out of money, if it’s the truth. It’s good for openness in county government.”

Coulson points to the agreement of the county with North Little Rock and Little Rock that resulted in a unified water system—Central Arkansas Water—as a model of the type of cooperation that might make law enforcement and incarceration more efficient.

“While policing is not the same as water, it made sense in the long run to combine water utilities,” Coulson said. “I suggested is there a benefit to looking at a policing function. Should we have a Pulaski County police department, or should the county get out of policing, and (just) run the jail?”

Hathaway said, however, that the most successful instances of such joint efforts occur in counties where there is only one large city. Coulson said if more money were put into so-called PIT programs—prevention, intervention and treatment—the county might not need to build more jail space. “We’re looking at much more than the detention center,” said Hathaway. “We looked at county finances, how we got into this situation (in which) we now find ourselves.”

“We looked broadly at the criminal justice system, judges, the jail and are trying to determine…the appropriate size. We looked at a lot of statistics. Other communities are struggling with that.”

He said the task force would make recommendations on financing and changes that need to be made. While alternatives may be important, he said the group found that some, like monitoring bracelets, don’t work too well. His task force held three public meetings, with the one in Jacksonville best attended, he said.