8 Investigates: Overcrowded Jails

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) – Poinsett County Sheriff Larry Mills said he disagrees with some aspects of a state law, which was designed to ease the number of overcrowded jails in Arkansas.

He said the Public Safety Improvement Act, or Act 570, to the Arkansas Constitution was meant to provide shorter prison sentences for some property and drug crimes.

After the measure passed, local sheriffs announced concerns about how the bill would create a backlog for county jails.

Click here to read more about Act 570.

Mills said his jail housed seven state inmates on Friday, August 30th. The Poinsett County Jail has a capacity of 120 inmates with a daily average of 75 inmates. He said most state inmates are in Poinsett County because the Arkansas Department of Community Correction doesn't have enough prison space to house them.

While Poinsett County has not had issues with overcrowding, like Greene and Jackson Counties, he has talked about the issue with county judges.

"If it's a situation where you've got a violent offender versus a non violent, or a felon versus a misdemeanor, you get to a point to where you have to begin to prioritize," said Mills. "They've served 8 of those (days in jail). They only have two left. There are situations such as that where the judge may go ahead and give him credit for the two days because we need the bed space for a violent or a more serious offense."

According to the ADCC, more than 13,000 inmates are in custody at various state run facilities, but there are more inmates than there is space for.

One possible solution to curb overcrowding is the construction of a new prison and passage of a new sales tax. Mills said he is not in favor of that possibility.

"We hear that, you know, I'm not for building anymore penitentiaries. I'm not for pouring any more money into the penitentiary system. I'm not for any increase on tax to build more prisons. I'm not for any of that either," said Mills. "We cannot continue like we're going because as obviously has been in the news here lately, the problem that we have with these early release things is that these folks are being released from the penitentiary. They're coming right back into the communities. They're committing crimes again. They're getting rearrested. They're back in the county jail awaiting a hearing or parole hearing, and then that's violated and we're waiting on bed space at the Department of Corrections. It's just a never ending. It's just a revolving door."

Second Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington also said he was not in favor of Act 570. Ellington said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder should have looked at Arkansas' efforts to combat overcrowding before pointing at Act 570 as a good thing.

"He mentioned Arkansas as one of the states who had made changes to its parole eligibility, its sentencing reform as the legislature did in Act 570. I think, when he was pointing to Arkansas' Act 570, along with others, as a good thing, however, I believe if you look at what it's really done in this state, it's not a good thing," said Ellington. "With the new Act 570, where they've lessened the sentence period of time, I'll be honest with you. It seems like a catch and release system to me. It's just like you're fishing on the White River. You catch a fish and turn it loose. It seems like we catch it. The officers catch them. We send them to prison and the prison turns them loose pretty quick."

Click here to read recommendations by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Act 570 also increases the felony for theft from $500 to $1,000, giving the district court the case load. There were also changes to the weight amount on marijuana possession, making some felonies misdemeanor crimes.

According to statistics collected by Region 8 News in Craighead, Jackson, Lawrence, Poinsett and Greene Counties, most inmates are behind bars on drug related charges. In the Lawrence County Jail, 36% of the inmates on the jail roster were in custody for possession of a controlled substance.

"85-percent probably is drug related in some way. It may not be a drug offense that they're charged with, but drugs lead to the offense that they're charged with," said Mills. "You take someone with a substance abuse problem, the first thing is, if they're not willing to help themselves, 20 white horses are not going to be able to drag them anywhere to get them help unless they are ready."

Mills said oftentimes, when an inmate is released early from a state prison or county jail, the offender is back in custody for the same or similar crime in a short time.

"I've always thought that depravation of liberty alone would be enough to make most folks not want to come back," said Mills.

"It's not just the violent offenders who are causing our society all the problems. You look at all the burglaries, and the thefts and the people who are out here on drugs that are a danger to folks. It's not just someone who had displayed violence and has been arrested or charged with it. There are other folks out there who need to be in jail," said Mills. "I think it'll be a topic of discussion and I think there may be some committees that may try to branch off and do research. All that was done with Act 570. There was a research group that went out and did research in other states to determine how to (improve the jail system), but it's complicated. It's not anything simple."

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