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Northwest Arkansas Jails See Revenue Drop

4 min read

BENTONVILLE – Two county jails are reporting falling revenue as money-saving measures in state government reduce local jail populations, officials said.

Jails in Benton and Washington counties aren’t getting their usual level of reimbursement for holding inmates awaiting a prison bed because the Department of Correction is moving prisoners through the system at a faster rate.

County jails across Arkansas typically hold inmates for the state prison system until space opens in a prison. However, more inmates are being released from prison earlier, so state prisoners in county jails are being moved more quickly.

"We’re just not holding them as long as we used to," said Dianna Lester, administrative assistant to Capt. Chris Sparks, the man in charge of the Benton County Jail. "Our numbers are down."

Lester said payments from the state ran as high as $225,000 in one month in 2009, the jail’s highest year for state paybacks.

The jail had a $220,000 payment in March 2011, compared with a payment of $25,900 in March 2012.

"It used to be that it was very seldom that we have a month below $100,000 (in revenue)," Lester said. "It just started going down after 2009."

Washington County also is seeing state prisoners with shorter stays, according to Jay Cantrell, chief deputy at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

"They’re running them through here faster," Cantrell said. "It used to be a three- to five-month wait. Now it’s three weeks to 30 days. So it drops our projected revenue."

Cantrell and Sparks said while the cost of meals and miscellaneous items are reduced by shorter prisoner stays, it’s not enough to offset the shortfall.

"Personnel is our biggest cost, and it takes just as many to run the jail if there’s 400 inmates or 600 inmates," Cantrell said. "It does reduce some expenses but not our big ticket items."

Washington County, with a jail capacity at 710, can lose more money overall than the smaller Benton County Jail, which can hold about 508 inmates, authorities said.

"For every prisoner, the state pays us $28 per day to hold them. We get $40 per day on federal prisoners," Sparks said. "Medication costs are on us. We figured it costs us $53.11 per day to house a prisoner. The state auditors figured $41.23 per day. We charge cities $40 per day per prisoner. That includes meals and everything."

"The bottom line is, using the actual cost we use to keep an inmate, we’re OK by not housing as many state prisoners and not keeping them as long. We’re not bringing in as much, but we’re not holding as many prisoners for as long a time."

The revenue discrepancy first came to light when Richard McComas, Benton County comptroller, told the Quorum Court the county budgeted $1.75 million in revenue from the state to house prisoners but will be lucky to break the $900,000 mark.

"That’s the way receipts are running right now, based on the first few months," McComas said. "We haven’t officially made any adjustment to our budget."

Sentencing guidelines that have an impact are the result of implementation of Act 570 last year. The act allows use of alternative sentencing methods such as probation or ankle bracelets for nonviolent offenders – mostly drug offenders.

"I told the Quorum Court the revenue would be down when the state started doing this," said Benton County Sheriff Keith Ferguson. "I also told the court that we’re not here to make money, we’re here to serve the people and to hold people who have broken the law. The state’s trying to cut their budget and part of that is falling on our backs."

For example, authorities said, Act 570 lowered the penalty for someone caught with less than 2 grams of methamphetamine to a Class C felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.

A person caught with more than 2 grams of methamphetamine could still be charged with a Class Y felony, punishable by up to 40 years or life in prison. A jury also has the option of convicting the person of a Class A felony, punishable by six to 30 years in prison and up to a $15,000 fine.

The law also makes some nonviolent offenders eligible for parole earlier with electronic monitoring as a condition of early release in some cases.

The act also provides for less severe punishment for some parolees who fail to report to a parole officer or who fail a drug test.

All of these measures, along with ankle bracelets as an alternative sentencing technique, combine to move less violent offenders through the system quicker.

"Judges are giving increased probation and using drug courts," said Shea Wilson, communications administrator for the Department of Correction. "Sentencing is down and releases are up. It’s not just what we’re doing on fast-tracking. Everyone is mindful of the problem and working toward a solution."

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, broadcast or distributed.)

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