Like most county jails in Arkansas, the Baxter County Jail in Mountain Home is almost always filled to capacity. Sheriff John Montgomery says his 101 beds are full most of the time, especially on weekends. But if you ask the people in his county why, you will probably get a wrong answer.
Montgomery recently conducted a non-scientific poll on the Sheriff’s Department’s website, asking, “What percentage of people in Arkansas prisons are there because of being convicted of Marijuana?” He posed the question because he’s getting an earful from people in the county about his crowded jail. Montgomery said, “They tell me, ‘We need to stop locking up people for marijuana.’”
Montgomery said the poll shows many people don’t understand why people go to jail in Arkansas. His first look at the first 1,000 people was eye-opening. More than half thought better than three in ten of the state’s inmates were jailed for marijuana crimes. That includes more than 25 percent who thought more than half the state’s inmates were behind bars for pot.
The real answer – less than one-tenth of one percent of the state’s inmates went to jail on a marijuana conviction. Montgomery said the real issues facing the state’s lock-ups are property crimes and a backlog of inmates held in county jails waiting for transfer to a state prison.
Montgomery argues the prison bed-space shortage has reached crisis stage. Arkansas’ 75 counties are holding 2,600 inmates who are waiting for transfer to the Arkansas Department of Corrections. He said the state defines the crisis stage as 1,500 inmates waiting for transfer to ADC. Baxter County’s jail has 101 beds. “I have 35 inmates waiting for a bed in a state prison,” Montgomery said.
The cost of housing state inmates is another big issue for county jails. Montgomery reports it costs Baxter County $49.13 a day to house a state inmate. The state reimburses the county $28 per inmate.
Arkansas lawmakers completed a special session this week in which they appropriated money to open up 600 more state prison beds. “That’s only for a year,” Montgomery pointed out.
Montgomery said the biggest problem facing his jail is the growing number of people arrested for property crimes. “People are stealing to support their drug habits,” Montgomery said.
The sheriff said there are two big drug problems putting people in jail, and neither is marijuana. Montgomery said meth and prescription drug abuse are pushing the property crimes. He also maintains that the prescription drug abuse is creating a new problem with heroin in his county.
“Prescription drugs like oxycontin are opiates. But they’re expensive. Heroin is a lot cheaper.”
With his jail constantly at capacity, you might think the answer to the crowding problem is new jail space. Montgomery doesn’t think so. The Baxter County Jail is only about ten years old. Montgomery says normally the time to think about building on would be when a jail runs at 80 percent capacity for six months. He said his jail has been there for almost a year. Montgomery argues he needs more money more than he needs more space. He said voters approved money to build a new jail, but have not yet agreed to a new tax to operate the jail. Most recently, Baxter County voters turned down a quarter-cent sales tax increase in 2012.