Elias Weiss is the opinion editor for the Arkansas Traveler, where he worked as a reporter and columnist from 2018-2019. Elias graduated with an AA degree in journalism from Central Piedmont Community College in 2018.

Recent Washington County prison policy is endangering citizens and inmates alike.

Longtime Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder announced last month that the number of convicted criminals allowed into the county jail will be limited because of overpopulation within the institution. This is less of a solution to the problem, and more of a cop-out that could leave other Fayetteville-area residents in more danger than they deserve.

Helder said the jail was in “crisis mode” back in February, but just this month admitted to releasing inmates to the street to avoid them joining the 30 to 40 who are forced to sleep on the floor on any given night.

If county officials continue to insist on institutionalizing only a percentage of all those convicted, there is, at the very least, a better method to determine who gets locked up and who walks free. As it stands, it is generally only violent felons who can be accepted into the jail. But outside of this exception, recency of the crime is hardly a criterium to refuse to incarcerate someone – just because the jail is already full doesn’t mean officials can’t replace an old inmate with a new one, especially when the new one is a repeat offender.

The severity and nature of crimes should play a bigger role, as well as how close current prison population members are to completing their sentences. If an inmate has served 23 of 24 months, it might be fair to grant an early release to make room for someone who was arrested this morning, instead of merely turning today’s inmate back to the street.

Furthermore, repeat offenders should take priority over first-time offenders – repeaters should take the place of first-time offenders for the same crimes, because first-time offenders are less likely than repeaters to return to jail. In this worst-case scenario, offering a second chance to first-timers would be the more just course of action.

In addition to more criminals walking freely outside the detention center, overcrowding of the Washington County Detention Center also contributed to the violent murder of an inmate after a cell transfer request on the basis of overcrowding was denied.

“There have been several suggestions from a few community members about how to reduce the number of detainees in our Washington County Detention Center, but most of the suggestions are things that I, as Sheriff of Washington County, have no control over,” Helder said.

Despite Helder proposing a 600-bed expansion, the Quorum Court brushed off the issue in order to “explore other alternatives.”

Even worse, the Springdale detention center will be closing its doors soon – no later than 2020 – but Helder thinks it’s the public’s duty to decide whether an expansion of Washington County’s jail should go in the books, he said in a press release.

The negligence of county officials has also raised another concern – it’s safe to say the average citizen expects close to the bare minimum from county government. There are very few occasions when county governments go into “crisis mode.” So what is getting accomplished in the Sheriff’s office if this glaring issue has been tossed onto the back burner?

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