OPINION

OPINION | GREG HARTON: County judge hits the reset button on criminal justice reform group

Where are the answers for Washington County's criminal justice challenges going to come from?

Those challenges include an overcrowded jail, a situation that can't continue forever. Sooner or later, state or federal officials who monitor inmate conditions will get involved. People arrested are still people with certain civil rights. Places where we incarcerate them must be humane. Overcrowding eventually becomes inhumane.

The county jail needs more space. Northwest Arkansas, after all, is growing in every way. Not all of those ways are suitable for glossy promotional ads touting the region's assets. With predictions of Northwest Arkansas two most populous counties reaching 1 million people sometime in the 2040s (starting 17 years from now), sooner or later jails in Benton and Washington counties will have to be expanded to deal with that.

Washington County's jail opened in 2005, when 184,000 people lived in the county. Benton County's opened in 1999, when 134,000 people lived there. Populations of both counties have doubled since.

Building jails is expensive, though. The "toss them in jail" approach that was once a luxury can't be sustained. That's why officials in both counties, beyond pursuing jail expansions, have been busy evaluating approaches to criminal justice that involve alternative sentencing and services to help people with substance abuse and mental health issues that contribute to some criminal behaviors.

Those efforts took a hit in Washington County this past week when County Judge Patrick Deakins announced he'd suspended all meetings of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee that's been studying reforms. Why? By county ordinance, appointments to the panel are for a limited time and the terms of every member had expired.

Deakins said he's got to follow the letter of the law. Resolving the future of the committee, he said, will take time.

At Thursday's Quorum Court meeting, he criticized circulating "lies" that he was disbanding the panel, but expressed some frustration with the CJCC.

He said "the meaningful reforms we have made this year, none of them have come from the CJCC."

"I think we are seven years into a process that we need to be very self-reflective about and decide if that's the right group to make progress for this county," Deakins said.

Deakins was frustrated earlier with the committee's plan for pre-trial services that might help in releasing some inmates from the jail as they await trials. The estimated cost to the county was $200,000. He also fired the committee's only staff person.

On Thursday, Deakins appeared to reject any plan that costs more money. Voters last November rejected a tax proposal to fund a large expansion of the jail.

"The solutions we find in criminal justice, we have the funds for that already that the taxpayers are willing to give us, and we need to find solutions with what we already have," he told Quorum Court members.

People can interpret elections any way they want. I tend to believe voters reject specific proposals. Rejecting one plan doesn't mean the public will, now and forevermore, reject all plans to fund, in this case, a jail expansion. But Deakins has a right to his interpretation, too, and he's the guy in the county's judge's seat.

If I share any concerns about his suspension of the committee, they depend on his intent. The committee was made up of people -- judges, prosecutors, public defenders, etc. -- with detailed knowledge of the criminal justice system. It's a complex system, with few easy answers. If Deakins intends to reconstitute it to help discern what future criminal justice reforms might look like, it needs to consist of people who clearly understand how that system works and doesn't work.

Working solutions can't come from laymen.