Summary of Findings

Current conditions in Benton County’s criminal justice system make effective performance problematic. Community prevention programs lack the capacity and key programs to meet local needs and divert at-risk persons from the criminal justice system. Law enforcement agencies lack access to adequate jail capacity, forcing heavy reliance on citation and release of arrestees beyond advisable levels. Jail staff must continually release inmates early to make space available for those arrestees that require incarceration. Defendants fail to appear at a substantial number of court-ordered hearings because there is often no consequence for their absence. Incarcerated offenders have little access to rehabilitative programs or needed mental health and substance abuse treatment. Finally, key criminal justice system facilities—the jail, the courthouse, and the law enforcement center, are all in poor physical condition and have serious operational deficiencies.

These issues have developed over time and have multiple, complex dimensions. As such, an effective plan to improve criminal justice system performance will require a comprehensive approach that addresses program needs and opportunities for improvement in enforcement, justice, and accountability. The pathway toward achievement of these goals requires a plan that coordinates program strategies among social service agencies, law enforcement, custody, the courts, and community corrections. The project team’s review of County services in these areas indicates a number of program needs and opportunities that will improve the current system and make progress on criminal justice system goals.

Key project findings include:

• Benton County has a robust infrastructure of social service programs that address public health, homelessness, substance abuse treatment, and behavioral health needs in the community.

• Addressing the issue of the large homeless population in the community is one of the most significant challenges facing the County.

• Police agencies in Benton County employ 118 law enforcement officers. This ranks in the mid-range of peer comparison group counties.

• Reported crime in Benton County has increased by 28 percent over the last five years. Although violent crimes against persons make up a relatively small proportion of crime, this represents the fastest growing category of offenses.

• Arrests have declined over the same period. The majority of arrests are for behavioral crimes such as drug use, DUII, or disorderly conduct. 

• Benton County has a higher reported crime rate than its peer comparison group counties, as well as the largest gap between crime rates and arrest rates.

• Sixty-six percent of arrests result in a jail booking.

• Benton County law enforcement agencies make extensive use of citation and release due to lack of capacity at the Benton County Jail, leaving a great deal of discretionary authority in the hands of sworn officers.

• The current law enforcement center has numerous building issues that impair law enforcement operations.

• Workload metrics indicate that the Benton County courts process cases in an efficient manner.

• The number of defendants who fail to appear for hearings is very high. This appears to be a result of the lack of meaningful sanctions for non-compliance with court-ordered appearances.

• The lack of adequate staff resources in the District Attorney’s Office impairs overall criminal justice system performance.

• The court administers a number of alternative sanction, including a large drug court program. The system would benefit from a structured evaluation of program outcomes.

• Benton County books over 3,000 offenders annually into a jail facility with a capacity of 40 beds. The County relies on contracting for beds at NORCOR to supplement its own jail capacity.

• The average daily jail population (ADP) for the County has been stable, ranging between 60 and 67 inmates over the past five years. Slightly more than half of these offenders are housed outside the County.

• Benton County has an extremely low incarceration rate relative to comparable counties and other local correctional systems throughout the United States.

• Jail staff relies on early release mechanisms to manage the size of the jail population. These include matrix release at booking and forced release for general population inmates. In 2017, 531 inmates were released from jail early through these programs. It is not uncommon for offenders to receive multiple early releases from jail after they have been re-incarcerated for a new offense.

• The jail population is predominantly male (85 percent), white (79 percent), relatively young (average age 31), with a majority in pre-trial status (68 percent). 

• The jail does not assess offender program needs and provides minimal program opportunities. The jail population appears to have a significant number of inmates with mental health treatment needs.

• The offender classification system used by the jail does not meet contemporary professional standards and cannot be used in an effective manner due to inadequate bed space.

• The physical condition and layout of the jail facility is extremely poor.

• Benton County Probation and Parole supports a wide range of community programs that supervise and provide services for released offenders. The programs are based on evidence-based research and are consistent with best practices and professional standards found in community corrections programs throughout the United States.

• Reported program data includes process and activity measures, but fails to track program outcomes for program participants. Such data is essential for evaluation of program effectiveness.

• Assuming current policies remain in place, the County jail population will grow to an ADP of 92 inmates by 2040. This population level would require a jail capacity of 107 beds to accommodate population fluctuations and inmate management issues.

• A strategy to address criminal justice program needs and opportunities for system improvement must be balanced—addressing law enforcement, justice, accountability systems, and program treatment.

• System needs for community social services programs include expansion of community mental health treatment, development of a crisis respite center, increased transitional housing, expansion of community substance abuse treatment, development of a sobering center, and a restorative justice program.

• The use of citation and release should be reduced to approximately 15 percent of arrests to ensure an appropriate public safety response to crimes in the community.

• A new law enforcement center is needed to improve working conditions and operations for Benton County law enforcement agencies.

• Benton County courts require the ability to effectively sanction persons who fail to appear at court-ordered hearings.

• The District Attorney’s Office requires an additional seven deputy district attorneys (DDAs) phased in over time to resolve long-standing understaffing and projected workload increases.

• The Benton County Courthouse has serious physical and operational deficiencies. The facility needs to be replaced as soon as possible.

• The Benton County Jail needs to eliminate reliance on matrix release and forced release to manage jail population levels.

• Implementation of a pre-trial release program, consistent with evidence-based guidelines for offender assessment and supervision, and an updated offender classification system would improve management of the County’s jail capacity.

• The development of in-custody programs for substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, and education would provide needed opportunities for rehabilitation in jail.

• The development of additional alternatives to jail for sentenced offenders, such as electronic monitoring and work release, would provide a superior means to facilitate re-entry back into the community for appropriate offenders and would relieve demand for jail capacity.

• The County requires a new jail facility with adequate capacity to support law enforcement and the courts, with a design that provides the opportunity for delivery of effective rehabilitative programs.

• The County criminal justice system requires improved data collection and outcome evaluation to support policymaking and resource allocation decisions.

• Ongoing investment in staff training will ensure that the County makes optimal use of criminal justice system resources.

• Establishment of a citizens advisory group for the entire County criminal justice system would facilitate communication between criminal justice agencies and the community.