• decarceratearkansa

Jail ≠ Justice: Help Stop Jail Expansion Plans in Washington County

This zap is being organized in support of our friends at Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition.

Ways to Engage: In-Person and Email

The Injustice

On Monday August 9, 2021, during the Jail/LE committee of the Washington county quorum court, Sheriff Helder gave what was supposed to be an update on COVID in the jail, which quickly turned into a full blown proposal to expand the jail an additional 200+ beds as well as other areas of the jail at a cost to taxpayers of $20mm+.

The Sheriff was enthusiastically received by the committee Justice of the Peaces (JPs), who did not blink an eye at the proposed expense and instead said “This is a no-brainer” Immediately following the Sheriff’s presentation, the Jail/LE committee voted to recommend passage of an ordinance sponsored by JP Lance Johnson to use $250k of the American Rescue monies to seek architectural services for renderings of the new jail.

That ordinance has been presented to and recommended for passage by the Finance and Budget committee on Tuesday August 10, 2021.

The final step to actually appropriate the $250k Rescue money is for the full Quorum Court to pass JP Lance Johnson’s / Sheriff Helder’s ordinance this Thursday, August 19, 2021 at 6:00 pm.

Call to Action 1 (In-Person)

When: Thursday evening August 19th at 5:00 p.m. Where: Washington County Court House What: One hour before the quorum court is poised to spend millions of American Rescue Plan funds on a jail expansion, and roll Cares funds designated for community relief into a slush fund, community members will create a human light bright on the courthouse grounds and parking lot. Participants will be socially distanced, masked, and safe, spacing six feet apart from one another to create a human Light Bright.

Call to Action 2 (Email)

Email the following people:

Justice of the Peaces/County:



Dear ________,

I urge you to not pass, and to table indefinitely, the “ORDINANCE APPROPRIATING $250,000 FROM THE AMERICAN RESCUE PLAN ACT FUND (3046) TO THE ENGINEERING/ARCHITECTURE LINE ITEM (3004) IN THE BUILDINGS AND GROUNDS BUDGET (10000108) FOR 2021” which is earmarked for new construction analysis and planning for an expansion of the Washington County Detention Center. The Rescue Plan has broad applicability and represents a possibility for a vast number of varied services and supports to be put in place to help create stability for our entire community, which would directly impact the jail population - expanding health care options, including substance use and mental health care, community-based treatment programs to reduce the likelihood that people with substance use or mental health problems will be arrested, reopening the CSU, community-based case management and mentoring services, public transportation services to important public buildings like courthouses and libraries, social workers in the public defender’s office to support people with pending criminal cases, job training services, wifi expansion, legal aid services, and these are just a very few of the many options we have as a County. Our neighbors in Benton County are planning an organized, thorough, and transparent process to decide how the Rescue money should be invested in their county. Washington County should absolutely do the same.


  • NCSC Study: Additionally, I would like to know why you aren’t investing in and holding county criminal system actors accountable to the recommendations in the NCSC study commissioned and paid for by the County to develop data-driven decision-making processes across the justice system? With the exception of establishing a Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee and the funding of one ten person diversion program, nothing has been done to implement the changes suggested by NCSC to reduce our jail population and still keep the community safe. All recommendations in the NCSC Study cost much less than jail expansion. Why aren’t you holding Sheriff Helder accountable to the resolution you passed in February 2020 urging him to stop contracting with other jurisdictions to jail people pretrial?

  • Secrecy/ Lack of Transparency: I am concerned about the significant lack of transparency and the enthusiastic response of the Quorum Court to fund the Sheriff’s $20m+ jail expansion proposal with limited emergency monies in a process with limited voter oversight, as opposed to the previous jail expansion of 2019, which would have required voter approval of a tax increase. Why was nothing made public that the jail expansion was being considered before it was presented to the Jail/LE committee last Monday 08/09/21? Can you guarantee that this construction will not require any tax increases for county residents now or in the future? If it does not require tax increases, what services or programming is our county planning on cutting to fund the jail expansion? How were the costs in the Sheriff’s presentation determined? What calculations were used and is there data to back up these estimated costs? How will the annual costs of operating the new jail compare to the cost of operating the current jail? Does the new operating cost include the cost of hiring and paying salaries to additional guards and supervisory staff? What other county agencies (such as the county’s public health or education agencies) will have increased costs (healthcare and education programs for incarcerated people) because of jail expansion? How much do you estimate their costs will increase per year? Do official cost estimates take into account the collateral costs of incarceration on people, families, and communities, including loss of wages and jobs, adverse health impacts, increased child welfare costs, and the costs to stay in touch with loved ones?

  • Washington County taxpayers currently pay a one-fourth cent sales tax for operation and maintenance of the existing jail. When the jail expansion came up in 2019, the quorum court was proposing an additional one-fourth cent sales tax to pay for the increased operational and maintenance costs for the expanded jail, meaning WC taxpayers would pay a permanent one-half cent sales tax for jail M&O. Our current one-fourth cent sales tax brings in approximately $11,075,000 each year and that is not enough to pay costs of our current 710 bed facility. The extra costs are going to have to come from somewhere. It seems very likely that an increased tax will be the only way going forward.

  • FTAs and Rearrests: People being rearrested and missing court are complicated issues which are exacerbated by dated, inefficient, lazy policies by all actors in the system. Washington Co felony circuit courts have not operated for a year, and have not given any guidance to people with pending court cases throughout that time. Given this, the number of FTAs is completely predictable, and could have and can still be avoided. If a person misses court for a low level drug or theft offense in Washington County, judges are still routinely setting $25k-$50k bond amounts, essentially condemning people with low level underlying charges to pretrial imprisonment. FTAs have always made up a larger part of the jail population because of high bond setting practices by judges ($25k-$50k bonds for missing court are standard). See ombudsman report from 02/10/2020, just before Covid. But no significant system changes have been made to assist people in making court appearances or alerting them of changing court conditions because of the pandemic. How have judges taken Covid and the courts’ choice not to resume for a year, without a public notification system, into account when issuing FTA warrants and setting high bonds on those warrants/ charges? How have prosecutors taken Covid and the courts’ choice not to resume for a year, without a public notification system, into account when deciding who to charge with Failure to Appear and what bond to request? We can’t incarcerate our way out of community issues like addiction, poverty, trauma, and mental health struggles. People will continue to cycle through the jail system until we address root issues that lead to instability, which include infrastructure issues like public transportation, wifi access for health care and court appearances, housing insecurity, and more.

  • Truly End 287g:The sheriff officially ended the 287g program in 2020, but ICE still operates in our jail. People are still being issued detainers and are still being picked up by ICE and taken to holding facilities. This practice creates distrust and fear across our communities. It tears families apart, separating children from their mothers and fathers. It also contributes to our high number of incarcerated people. We need to stop that now.