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Inmate populations straining operational capacity at the Garland County Detention Center since last year have not deterred the county's district court judges from meting out jail time for misdemeanor offenses.

Division 1 and 2 district judges Joe Graham and Ralph Ohm said inmate counts don't influence their sentencing decisions. They adjudicate the county's misdemeanor cases and determine if probable cause exists to detain defendants arrested on felony charges.

"We understand there's overcrowding, but I try to look at each case and individual as they come," said Graham, who was elected last year to serve the final two years of the term the late David B. Switzer was elected to in 2016. "If they deserve jail time, I'll sentence them to jail time. If the jail has to release them because of space issues, that's just something we have to live with."

A one-for-one policy has been in effect for the female housing unit since February, with one woman released for every woman booked into the jail. The judges said jail officials have occasionally asked to release women serving misdemeanor time since the policy went into effect.

The women's unit was designed to hold up to 68 inmates, but jail officials limit the count to the unit's operational capacity of 58 to 65. Numbers above that range don't allow staff to isolate troublesome inmates and carry out direct supervision, the philosophy that places jailers at the center of inmate living areas without intervening barriers.

Operational capacity for the entirety of the 156,000-square-foot facility is 373 inmates.

"They have provided lists from time to time of females they'd like to release if there are too many at the jail," said Ohm, noting that the jail doesn't need judicial authorization to release misdemeanor offenders if overcrowding is threatening the health and safety of inmates and staff. "When they make recommendations for early release or house arrest on an ankle monitor, I can't think of a single time where we've said no. We want to maintain a safe environment for everybody involved."

Ohm and Graham said they generally reserve jail commitments for violent offenders, a sentencing option that was unavailable prior to the June 2015 opening of the $42 million facility at 3564 Albert Pike Road. The old jail on Ouachita aAvenue regularly held more than 200 inmates despite being designed for fewer than 100 when it opened in the 1980s.

Ohm said space limitations turned the Ouachita facility into a felony jail, holding only defendants arrested on felony charges, probation and parole violations or adjudicated defendants awaiting transfer to the Arkansas Department of Correction.

"Even when there were situations where people needed to go to jail because violence was involved, I wasn't sure the jail would hold them," he said. "Now if someone comes to court on domestic violence or fighting with law enforcement, I feel reasonably confident they're going to spend time in jail, whereas in the past I wouldn't waste my time and sentence people to jail. Now I believe they will."

Graham said some misdemeanor offenses warrant jail time.

"There's some pretty serious misdemeanors -- domestic batteries, multiple DWI offenses," he said. "Those are people who need to be in jail."

Ohm said he's noticed fewer serial offenders in his courtroom since the Albert Pike facility opened, attributing lower rates of recidivism to the more than 20 self-improvement programs offered at the jail. Information presented at last week's roundtable discussion on poverty in Garland County showed inmates who participated in the Bridges Out of Poverty curriculum taught at the jail were more than one-third less likely to return to the facility.

Inmates who graduate from the programs accrue meritorious good time, making them eligible for early release.

"The classes they're offering at the jail are phenomenal and run by great people," Ohm said. "The jail has made a huge impact on quality of life for people in Garland County. It's expanded law enforcement's ability to deal with people they need to deal with and given the court system another tool to work with. The jail has been a major player in providing a safer environment for Garland County."

Local on 06/12/2019

Print Headline: District judges mostly unaffected by inmate counts

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