September 3, 2014 Edition

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County jail set to close,
extension approved

Megan Heyl
Staff Writer

The Lawrence County Quorum Court will meet Thursday at 7 p.m. in the courtroom at the Lawrence County Courthouse to discuss the county jail with members of the Arkansas Jail Standards Committee.

The committee announced on Aug. 27 that the jail was to be closed due to multiple failed inspections. Originally the deadline was set for Sept. 17.

Since then, research has been done showing that the committee, while it could recommend one, could not demand a closure with so little advance warning. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel's office discovered that if there were no safety issues then the county had six months to either make all required changes or have a plan of action to build a new facility.

County Judge Dale Freeman said that he has been doing research and making contacts with jail builders and loan offices to determine the next best step.

Sheriff Jody Dotson and District Judge Jason Marshall have both said that the current jail is beyond saving. According to Dotson, the jail has failed inspections for more than 10 years. Violations include inadequate cell space and square footage, overcrowding and outdated fire alarm and sprinkler systems. The sprinkler and alarm systems have been updated but many other issues remain unaddressed at this time.

The Arkansas Jail Standards Committee will review the upgrade Thursday. If in compliance with state regulations, Freeman said the state 309 prisoners who were picked up last week will be returned to the jail. The 309 program consists of four state inmates with specific job capabilities to be housed at the jail. These inmates assist with cooking, cleaning and maintaining vehicles for the sheriff's office.

Marshall said that if the jail does close it isn't going to have tremendous effects on the county and that most residents will notice little difference. The district has already had to operate as if there was no jail here due to overcrowding issues.

The jail has a capacity of 42 and often houses 45-50. If the jail were to close, most county inmates would be housed in the Greene County Jail, and Marshall said alternative sentencing could be used to decrease that number.

As an alternative to sending inmates to other counties, sentences could include probation periods, house arrests, public service and rehabilitation classes for minor offenses.

Inmates who are sent to Greene County would cost the county 50 percent more per day per inmate according to Marshall. He said while housing costs would be higher, other costs could be expected to go down and the county could potentially save money.

"I hope if the jail's closed that we can find ways to save money for a new jail," Marshall said.

In the event of a closure, Marshall foresees the front portion of the jail being converted into holding rooms for recent arrests and those awaiting trial, which is something that will also be needed if a new jail is built.

The future of the jail's employees is also in question if the jail were to close. Marshall said he believes that jobs would need to be created to accommodate some of the proposed alternative sentencing, which would help to offset any jobs that may be cut. He has particularly high hopes for the public service sentencing, which would require supervisors.

Public service sentencing would also alleviate some strain felt from the potential loss of the work-release program, which Hoxie and Walnut Ridge both use regularly.

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