A meeting Monday (Oct. 20) of Sebastian County elected officials and local members of the General Assembly largely focused on reimbursement from the state of Arkansas to counties for housing state Department of Corrections prisoners.
The meeting was to notify the local delegation of issues of importance not just to Sebastian County but all county governments in Arkansas and start a dialogue before the 2015 legislative session begins, Sebastian County Judge David Hudson said.
Reimbursement of counties for housing state inmates is nothing new, but Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck said he is increasingly concerned about the issue due to overcrowding at the Sebastian County Jail in downtown Fort Smith.
Annually, Hollenbeck said the jail allocates housing for 70 state inmates with reimbursement of $28 per day. But the reimbursement rate, he said, is lower than what the county charges other cities and governments to house inmates in an attempt to break even. As an example, Hollenback said the county charges the city of Fort Smith $45 per day to house its inmates.
Due to the disparity in funding, he said 64% of the jail's budget comes from the county's general fund, while only 36% comes from fees or reimbursements from the state. What has made the situation so dire, Hollenbeck said, is the fact that the state is having the county house more than its allocated space for inmates. While the county has set aside room for 70 state prisoners, its jail has housed as many as 200 state inmates. As of Sept. 30, the county had a total jail population of 356, with 150 of those being state inmates.
The situation is so extreme that some prisoners at the Sebastian County Jail are having to sleep on the floor of jail cells, Hollenbeck explained. He added that in order to keep the situation from spiraling out of control, he has had to release some non-violent offenders to keep the jail population manageable for jailers.
Having such a large number of state inmates with reimbursements below actual costs to house and feed the inmates is putting a strain on the county budget, pulling resources from other county departments, Hollenbeck said. As a solution, the county is asking that reimbursements be increased from $28 to $45 per day, which Hudson said is the average cost for all county jails to house inmates across the state.
The county is also seeking tweaks to Act 570, also known as the Public Safety Improvement Act of 2011, which would include addressing mental health needs for prisoners through funding. In his discussion with the General Assembly delegation, Hollenbeck said the state "has taken the ball and punted it" when it comes to addressing prison issues and funding of public safety.
Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, told Hudson, Hollenbeck and other elected officials from Sebastian County that while he and the other members of the Sebastian County-area delegation understood the issues, it would be difficult to address once the legislative session starts next year.
"I think at the end of the day, all this stuff comes back to money. I mean, everything we're talking about … who's going to pay for it and how do we get it? And I'm concerned that what gets lost in all the campaigning about tax cuts and everything else — and I'm for all that stuff — but someone's got to pay for it.”
Other solutions discussed included the creation of courts similar to drug court that help veterans get back on their feet through counseling and rehabilitation rather than jail time. The idea was also floated for a drug court-like program for the mentally ill who may have run afoul of the law.
But Files again pointed to money needed to start such programs, which Rep. Charlotte Douglas, R-Alma, said could be obtained through grants, noting that Sebastian County could be a pilot program for any of the proposed programs and possibly receive state incentive money. Either way, Files said nothing would be a quick fix to the prison situation in Arkansas but he said a combination of all the solutions discussed Monday would help to address the situation in coming years.
"At the end of the day, something has got to give and so I think having these conversations across the state (and getting people) in the mindset of something's got to be done or public safety is compromised,” Files said. “It plays such a pivotal point in the waterfall effect on all your budgets and on how you deal with stuff."