County Judges, Sheriffs seek special session for jail costs

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 127 views 

County judges and sheriffs are pushing for a special session to deal with jail reimbursements for state inmates, but Gov. Mike Beebe and at least one key state lawmaker are unconvinced a special session will fix the problem.

In a public statement released on Monday (Oct. 6), the County Judges Association of Arkansas and the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association said they have agreed to “actively pursue an immediate solution to a shortfall in state budgeting for county jail reimbursements for state inmates housed in county jails.”

Saying the need is “immediate,” county officials contend that the $28 a day reimbursement for state prisoners in county jails may be up to $17 less than needed per inmate per day.

County leaders said they would meet with lawmakers at Joint Budget hearings that begin Tuesday to address viable solutions, including a request for a special session.

In a special session this summer, the state Legislature and Gov. Mike Beebe approved roughly $6 million in additional funding to meet short-term needs for prison overcrowding at the state and county levels. Last week, Beebe released more than a million dollars in emergency funds to address the continuing shortfall.

The sheriffs’ and judges’ groups say about 2,300 state inmates are being held in county jails across the state and about 25% of county jail beds are occupied by state prisoners.

“Counties are facing challenging times even without this undue hardship,” said Chris Villines, Association of Arkansas Counties executive director. “The number of state inmates in county jails has a detrimental effect on local communities and local law and order. When you add the delay in reimbursement payments, this only compounds an already troubling financial and public safety crisis. We appreciate the fact that Gov. Mike Beebe has recognized the need and has agreed to release $1.1 million in rainy day funds to begin to address the crisis.”

Villines said one year of reimbursements for county jails would equal roughly $24 million, below the appropriation of $16.5 million. He also said $7 million of the $16.5 million is in category “B” funding, which will not be accessed until the end of the current fiscal year next May or June. Villines also said delays in payment from the state have also created “an unnecessary and severe economic hardship on county governments and local taxpayers in Arkansas.”

“This is an example of the state using counties as a source of credit,” Villines said. “Despite all our best efforts in economic development and education in Arkansas, our progress could flat line if we don’t address this issue and it gets out of control.”

Matt DeCample, spokesman for Gov. Beebe, said a special session is unlikely.

“After the release of additional rainy-day funds last week, Governor Beebe thinks all short-term fixes have been tapped before January. What is truly needed, a long-term solution, is not the kind of thing you begin discussing with a special session, you tackle that problem in a general session. While he’s always willing to sit down and discuss all possibilities, he currently doesn’t see an opportunity for additional short-term solutions before the next General Assembly.”

DeCample said in January that supplemental funding may be quickly approved to find additional money for the backup problem, but it would have to be with approval of a new governor.

The wait until January was echoed by incoming Senate President Pro Temp Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe).

“We’re gearing up for pre-budget hearings right now and legislators have a full plate,” Dismang said. “I do not see the opportunity for us to have another special session before January.”