We have to get serious about reducing crime, not just responding to it. Bigger jails cost more taxpayer money while doing little to fix the root causes of crime. Investing in crime prevention programs and our communities is the proven cost-effective way to fight crime, increase safety, and create a better future for the next generation."
I support providing our sheriff's deputies with the resources, pay, and training they need to protect our communities. People who present a true danger to the public belong in jail. At the same time, we also know that problems exist - we've heard over and over again from our county's Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee that our criminal justice system is in desperate need of fixing.
Washington County government has spent the last few years debating how to fix the ongoing problem of overcrowding in the Washington County Detention Center. In 2019 the Quorum Court spent $60,000 to commission an independent non-partisan study from the National Center for State Courts, to help decide what to do. The group studied our entire criminal justice system for a year and compared us to other counties across the nation. In 2020, their assessment came out. It found that we need better systems and more diversionary and rehabilitation programs.
The study provided a roadmap. Now we need to use it.
Jail should be reserved for people who present a danger to the public. I support the work our sheriff's deputies do to keep the public safe. I also support the findings of the 2020 Criminal Justice Assessment, which laid out a list of proven lower-cost alternatives to jail for low-risk nonviolent individuals. That includes treatment for addiction and mental illness, bail reform, re-entry programs, and reducing the high number of people in jail for failure to appear in court. I’ve spoken about the report with Sheriff Tim Helder, former Jail Ombudsman Stan Adelman, and community advocates. There is broad agreement that these programs will reduce recidivism - preventing people from committing crimes all over again. It will take political will from our Quorum Court to fund the criminal justice reforms the report has recommended.
Programs Need Funding
Progress has been slow because of a lack of diversionary programs in Northwest Arkansas. I support funding these programs, including using some of the $46 million in American Rescue Plan money that Washington County received. This is an opportunity to make change.
The county's partnership with Returning Home is one example of a criminal justice program that qualified for $315,000 in ARP money. It helps people with criminal backgrounds overcome barriers to successful reentry into society. But we need to fund other types of programs too.
We also need to end the revolving door of incarceration and homelessness. JP District 12 includes most of the homeless population in Washington County. Providing better resources through a joint effort of the county, cities, and service agencies has the potential to not only cut our jail population but also reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness.
The jail population was greatly reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lessons we learned as a county over the past two years are an opportunity to make lasting improvements and permanently reduce crime.
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