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OPINION | GREG HARTON: A few thoughts on jail expansion rejections in Benton, Washington counties and Sanders’ victory speech

by Greg Harton | November 16, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

Several days removed from the end of the campaign season (though not for runoff candidates), it's tempting to write about anything but the election cycle we just went through.

Rejection of larger jails in Benton and Washington counties and the pending installation of a new governor at the state Capitol, though, are good examples that when elections conclude, they don't mark an end. It's just the beginning.

Voters in both counties were clear: Bigger jails -- at least through plans costing $113.5 million and $241 million, respectively, in Washington and Benton counties -- are nonstarters. It's likely most voters primarily didn't like the associated sales tax increases. Some may have also bought into the ideas of criminal justice reform advocates who say greater levels of incarceration are not the solutions for the future.

I think they are, at least in part. Even if judicial system reforms that divert more people away from the jail are successfully implemented, I think population growth in northwest Arkansas will demand a combination of both approaches -- reforms plus added jail space.

Does anyone really believe, with all of the region's growth, that the two counties won't need additional jail space? If not now, eventually? If that's the case, last week's rejections will mean the counties will be back asking for tax dollars to build space for more jail beds. And we taxpayers will pay more, probably a lot more, for jail beds that we could have built now at a lower cost.

Is the cost of constructing anything going down in northwest Arkansas? It'll be the same situation with jail space.

Washington County judge-elect Patrick Deakins shared an interesting thought in Thursday's paper. He said county officials "owe it to the taxpayers" to vet out a regional jail project. What's interesting is the man he's replacing, County Judge Joseph Wood, said years ago he wanted to explore development of a jail that could meet the common needs of several counties in the region. One of Deakins' fellow Quorum Court members, Evelyn Rios Stafford, has called for research into a regional jail.

In an editorial nearly a year ago, this newspaper said a regional jail has been a longstanding "pipe dream" for northwest Arkansas. The problem is nobody ever takes it seriously, and these brief mentions by public officials never become anything more than that.

Why? Getting governments and public officials to share responsibility and funding while giving up 100% control is an idea that's extremely hard to sell.

But, it turns out, it's hard to get voters to buy jail expansion at a county-by-county level, too. Maybe there's hope there, but I'm not putting very many eggs in that basket.

• • •

Now, to our governor-elect, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Did you listen to her victory speech Tuesday night, Nov. 8? No mention of the fight against "Washington liberals" that figured so prominently in her campaign. Not even a mention of Donald Trump, whose support she enjoyed in a state where 62% of voters favored him in 2020.

Instead, she spoke of "taking Arkansas to the top" and how she wants to be the governor who takes it there. She said she believed her dad was the state's best governor, but she also wants to take that title from him. Best is in the eye of the beholder, but Mike Huckabee was pretty good. Far more moderate than many Trump backers would accept today.

If Sarah Huckabee Sanders tries to govern the state the way her father did, i.e., less worried about national politics and more focused on Arkansas's needs, she might follow one good Arkansas governor -- Asa Hutchinson -- with another.

And honestly, if her campaign for governor sounded more like last Tuesday's victory speech, I think more Arkansans would have felt better about her motivitions and focus.

Print Headline: Thoughts on Sanders, larger jails

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