Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

TOP STORY >>Top cop: We need to build jail cells

Leader staff writer

Until voters pass a quarter-cent jail tax, most criminals who are arrested will be back on the street within days, a problem the Jacksonville Police Department is dealing with every day.

According to Police Chief Robert Baker, Pulaski County hasn’t had enough money since 2004 to provide more jail space at the county lockup, which he calls “a regrettable situation.”

“We have a circumstance now where if you are a nonviolent felon or a misdemeanor, you’re not going to go to jail – it’s that problematic right now,” Baker told the Jacksonville Rotary Club Monday.

But the problem gets worse.

“If you’re a violent felon and you get to jail and there is another violent felon there that has committed a worse violent felony, there is an evaluation process the county’s using to alleviate bed space and make space available for the more violent felon,” he said.

“It should never have been this way. It should never have gotten to this point, but since 1990, it has been one of those regrettable situations and, as of yet, everyone understands it’s going to be the almighty dollar that will eventually solve the problem.”

The proposed quarter-percent countywide sales- and use-tax increase that appeared on the September 2006 ballot, which the voters rejected, would have paid for construction and operation of the 1,125-bed Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility, would have reopened the 250-bed work release center and would have paid for 196 new minimum- to medium-security beds and 292 new maximum-security beds.

But because of budget constraints, the detention facility has remained closed over 95 percent of the time.

“We fight the issue (of the jail being closed), and we are frustrated by it. As members of law enforcement, whose primary obligation is to serve and protect, we can do everything we can to serve and we can do everything we can to protect, but it’s regrettable that we can’t put certain people in jail that deserve to go,” said Baker, who has been with JPD since 1977.

“It isn’t that we aren’t trying to catch them or that we aren’t catching them. We are catching them, but the regretful thing is we can’t do anything once we get them,” he said.

Of the five homicides this year – the highest murder rate Jacksonville has ever seen, Baker said – JPD has arrested or gotten warrants for all but one suspect.

The department is still looking for Xavier Butler, 27, the Sept. 11 double-homicide suspect who is still at large after allegedly shooting three men at America’s Best Value Inn and Suites on John Harden Drive.

Butler is wanted for two counts of first-degree murder since two of the victims died. He is believed to be carrying a .45-caliber handgun and considered very dangerous. He was last seen driving a blue 1984 Chevrolet Caprice with Arkansas license plate number 939 LEO.

There have also been 255 burglaries this year in Jacksonville, 67 fewer than last year, giving the police department a clearance rate of 29 percent, compared to the national average clearance rate for burglaries of 13 percent, Baker said.
The state prison is also full and facing the same problems as the county detention facility, the chief explained.

With roughly 14,307 inmates housed in the state prison, it must make space available for other felons, who stay in county jails until there’s room in state prisons.

“The backlogs at the county jails sit at roughly 1,020 prisoners scheduled for the state prison but can’t get in the door (because of lack of space),” Baker said.

But lack of jail space isn’t the only problem law enforcement officials face.

The Arkansas Supreme Court, according to Baker, made a decision regarding Rule 7.1 that deals with misdemeanor warrants.
In the ruling, the court has made all misdemeanor warrants invalid unless a judge has issued them.

“Say we have an active (misdemeanor) warrant for theft of property under $500. We can’t make an arrest. We can only issue a summons to appear in court. If they fail to appear (in court), a warrant is issued for their arrest for failure to appear,” Baker said.

Prosecuting attorneys also can’t do more than issue summons to appear in court when they know who committed a crime.
“Instead of affidavits for arrest, it’s a summons to appear,” the chief said.

Baker said he hoped the Legislature would correct the problem, but, “regrettably, they were not able to this time around.”
“We’re having to suffer this — we’ve got them (the warrants) sitting in our office and we can’t serve them. It should not be that way,” he said.