“Arkansas has too many criminals and too few prison cells.”

That’s a quote from a 1993 article in This is Arkansas, a magazine published by the County Judges Association, and it describes what a Madison County committee is wrestling with today.

Madison County’s jail problem had been festering for years before the county lost its state certification in January 2015 and became a 24-hour holding facility. Now, prisoners held any longer are incarcerated in neighboring counties, and neighboring county jails are struggling with overpopulation.

Madison County’s jail committee, composed of County Judge Frank Weaver and 11 Madison County citizens, met Nov. 21 to discuss options. Weaver said he talked with representatives of Louisiana-based LaSalle Corrections at a recent County Judges Association meeting about the possibility of LaSalle building a regional corrections facility in Northwest Arkansas. LaSalle is a private business that builds and operates correctional facilities across the South.

Weaver brought the idea of a privately funded jail to the committee to consider. The other options are asking voters for a one-percent sales tax to fund a jail that the county would build or continuing the transport of prisoners to other counties if space is available.

Madison County sought and voters failed to approve county sales tax increases in 2008, 2013, and 2014. But even if a sales tax passed, Weaver said, “one percent won’t cut it.” Half the revenue generated would go to pay off the bond, leaving only half to cover both construction and maintenance and operations (M&O).

“I’ve been running our numbers to see what a one-percent might bring in,” Weaver said. He looked at the road and bridge fund’s one-percent tax as an example. It brought in $1.4 million in 2018, which was the best year they’ve had, he said. He cautioned that economic downturns are cyclical and can be expected. In 2009, for example, the same fund generated only $800,015.

County Clerk Tamitha Blocker told the committee the county could expect to pay $1.5 million to $2 million annually for maintenance and operation. She pointed out Carroll County’s 2017 budget included $1.7 million for jail maintenance and operation, a cost that increased 44 percent in 10 years.

Weaver told the committee that in September, Bradley and Drew counties in southeast Arkansas received approval from the Arkansas Board of Correction to contract with LaSalle to house the counties’ prisoners. They are awaiting final approval from the state.

Arkansas’ last experiment with privately run jails ended badly in 2001 when the state closed facilities run by Wackenhut Corrections Corp.

Weaver said Bradley and Drew counties are expected to pay $32.45 per day to LaSalle for their contracted beds – 12 and 45 beds respectively, he said. And they will pay that amount for their beds whether or not the beds are filled. The current cost per prisoner per day in Madison County is $62. (On the day of this meeting the county had 31 prisoners. The average is estimated at 25.4 per day.)

“How do cities play into this?” asked committee member Richard Gilham. Blocker said Huntsville reimburses the full cost for each prisoner incarcerated by the city. The state pays only $30, she said, and sometimes the state’s payments to the county are months behind.

If a LaSalle correctional facility is built in the region, it would allocate beds for each law enforcement agency that signed on to participate. Weaver said the county contract with LaSalle would be renewed year-to-year. If the idea advances, a site search would begin in this region. Such a facility would bring jobs and tax revenue to the hosting county, he said.

“I don’t see that there is really another option than a regional jail,” said Todd Thomas, chief of police in Huntsville.

“At first I was against it, but this is not going to get any better,” he said.

“This is like cancer. We can ignore it, but it’s not going to go away.” Thomas added that surveys predict the region’s population will double in 15 years, and the same can be expected for the jail population.

Committee member Jeremy Dotson agreed to analyze the numbers and other variables for future meetings.

“[LaSalle’s] business model will be based on scale and sustainability, so commitment from other counties and the state will be important,” he said.

A regional jail can contract beds to the state, counties, and federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and U.S. Marshals. Weaver said he plans to meet with county judges in other county’s to gauge interest.

Committee members are Blocker; Dotson; Prosecutor Matt Durrant; Sheriff Rick Evans; Justice of the Peace Larry Garrett; Gilham; Judge Dale Ramsey; JP Pattie Shinn; Thomas; Kenneth Watkins; and Weaver.

“I want all of you to research this topic,” Weaver said, before meeting again in early 2020, perhaps late January.

LaSalle Correction’s webpage is lasallecorrections.com.

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