September 16, 2015 Edition

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Inmate work-release program cut

Megan Heyl
Staff Writer

Due to lack of qualified inmates and liability risks, Sheriff Jeff Yates announced last week that he would be cutting the work-release program for county inmates.

He said not only are there less and less people they could release, but there were also multiple safety concerns that he struggled with every time he sent an inmate out. "I didn't feel good about it. It scared me," Yates said.

The decision will however leave both Hoxie and Walnut Ridge shorthanded with little to no resources to offset the loss in labor.

"Past administration in the Sheriff's Department supplemented about $50,000 worth of labor for the city," Hoxie Mayor Lanny Tinker said. He added that this is the single biggest issue to affect the budget since he's been mayor, including costs incurred through water/sewer failures.

According to Mayor Charles Snapp, Walnut Ridge is already working with a minimum crew at the current income level, which is due to increase in 2016 and again in 2017 from the act to increase the Arkansas minimum wage passed in 2014.

Snapp said the lack of inmate labor is going to mean there won't be enough work force to keep up with road patches, limb pickup and clean ups the way the city has been. He also said there is not enough money to replace that labor, which means there will be slower progress on many city projects.

Hoxie citizens, however, will have to make a major decision in the future as the inmate work-release program supplemented two full-time positions, one in water/sewer and one on the garbage truck, according to Tinker.

"To make up the revenue to replace the labor, the city will have to either cancel services, increase sales tax or increase fees for services," Tinker said.

Yates said the cities often needed more inmates than the jail could provide, that coupled with the time consuming process to evaluate who qualified for the program meant he had less time to focus on a new jail, which is his top priority.

The current jail has been dedicated to holding predominantly felons and those who would not qualify for the work-release program. Due to lack of space, there are very few misdemeanor offenders held at the current jail.

Yates said by the nature of the work-release program, there isn't a way to stay with the inmate every second, this leads to safety concerns not only outside of the jail but concerns about possibilities the inmates released could bring items back to jail.

Cuts to the program started earlier in the year and Yates said he had hopes they could find a way to work through the issues. "It was more than what we could do," Yates said.

Snapp said he understood some of the sheriff's concerns but it will mean the city budget will have to be addressed as it was made with this available labor in mind.

"The city has been using this service for years and we expected to continue to do so," Snapp said.

Tinker said when he first met Yates, prior to the election, he spoke to him about the program. "I said I would not support anyone who wouldn't continue with the work-release program because it is so important to Hoxie. I feel let down."

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