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Washington County Sheriff: 'Let community vote on jail expansion'

Washington County officials intend to ask the Quorum Court to push a $60 million jail expansion out to voters.

WASHINGTON COUNTY, ARKANSAS, Ark. — Overcrowding has been an issue for Washington County jails for the last eight years.

In 2020, the Springdale Police Department closed their jail, increasing the over-population issue at the Washington County Detention Center.

Before the closing of the Springdale jail, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office proposed a 700-bed expansion to the Quorum Court in 2018. That plan was denied.

In 2021, talks of expansion again arose using federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to mitigate the spread of COVID. The Phase I COVID Mitigation Project had plans to expand the Washington County Detention Center’s medical treatment areas, kitchen, intake and release areas and include constructing enough beds for detainees.

Today, they are learning that using ARPA funds for expansion was denied again. Sheriff Tim Helder is asking the Quorum Court to let voters decide on the $60 million expansion project.

“I think it’s my job, it’s incumbent upon me constitutionally, to bring this before the voters and let them weigh in on this issue,” said Helder.

However, the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition (AJRC) disagrees. Sarah Moore, the executive director and co-founder of the AJRC, says putting this on the ballot is to do so without due diligence.

“The public deserves the opportunity to weigh in on that, to have robust conversations about how they might be taxed for many years to come,” said Moore. “This is something that our children will inherit, so I think it’s something we shouldn’t rush into making a decision to add this to the ballot.”

Sheriff Helder noted in a public statement that the denial to use the ARPA funding will “intentionally exclude our detention center.” In an interview with 5NEWS, Helder said the biggest issue facing the jail is overcrowding. “If we truly want to save society, we have to have, as part of our vibrant criminal justice system, a facility that can hold the people that need to be in jail.”

The AJRC says they aren’t opposed to the use of funding for alternative solutions and suggest using ARPA funds for an expansion is “illegal” and beyond the scope of what the money was allocated for. Moore says the money could be used for alternative options that save taxpayers money and keep the community safe. Moore hopes the Quorum Court and elected officials are “really looking at solutions like robust pre-trial services, things that have been around for years in other jurisdictions that have high success rates.”

At this time, the Quorum Court will decide if the expansion will be passed to voters. 5NEWS will provide any updates as they are made available.

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