BENTON COUNTY, ARKANSAS, Ark. — The Benton County Detention Center is over capacity when it comes to inmates and is a struggle one jail administrator says has continued for about a year.
Officials say there are more than 700 inmates currently in custody and the jail is only supposed to house 669 inmates. The sheriff’s office says this is a problem they’ve been facing throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Of those more than 700 inmates, 101 have already been through the court system, convicted of a crime and are waiting to go to a state jail. From there, they will be waiting out their sentence.
The sheriff’s office says on Friday, Nov. 19, 20 inmates were transferred out of the jail, but those openings quickly filled up.
Lieutenant Shannon Jenkins says people not attending court hearings is adding to the problem. She says these people have either been given a citation or have been released on a low bond. Despite that, they don’t show up to court.
“And the judges are only going to so often and so many times let someone out on their own recognizance or a low bond when they fail to appear in court," Jenkins said. "So, it’s one of those things that’s a constant issue that we are having and facing right now."
Benton County Prosecutor, Nathan Smith says public safety is a top priority. He says he will always advocate for criminals being in jail.
“That doesn’t mean we won’t make some release decisions on a case-by-case basis and clearly we pursue certain strategies whether it’s drug court, veterans court or diversionary programs but ultimately we have to have a place to confine people who will not abide by the law,” he said.
The Benton County criminal justice coordinating committee is discussing expanding the jail as the county grows. The committee is also working on a triage plan in the short term. It would allow parts of the jail to be used for quarantine if there were to ever be another outbreak of COVID-19 or another illness.
Smith says a jail expansion is about two years away from becoming a reality.
“Long-term for us we have to maintain a focus on keeping the public safe and that means enforcing the law," he said. "We cannot be in a position where we say there are whole classes of crimes that we are not going to put in jail or prosecute because you can see where it leads."
The sheriff’s office says even though they are over capacity, no inmates are sleeping on the floor. They have what are called boats that have mattresses inside with bedding for the inmates to sleep in.