To the Partner Members of NWA United,
I hope you are well. The purpose of this short letter is to invite you to work to end mass incarceration in Washington County as an expression of your commitment to be united in the gospel against racism for justice generally and commitment #7 (action) specifically:
Love is action! We commit to not only speak out and to educate ourselves and our people regarding the evils of racism and the hope of reconciliation, but we also commit ourselves to practical action steps towards Biblical, restorative justice. We will leverage our influence and voices in our communities to help dismantle systems of oppression and work to build systems of justice and equity. This commitment also includes the commitment to be visible among our people and in the communities as advocates against racism and for restorative justice.1
In his book Rethinking Incarceration, Dominique Gilliard joins Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson in suggesting that slavery did not end but evolved (3). In her book The New Jim Crow, Alexander suggests that slavery evolved into Jim Crow and that Jim Crow evolved into mass incarceration (the New Jim Crow). Stevenson echoes this sentiment in his book Just Mercy as does Ava DuVernay in her film 13th, featuring Alexander and Stevenson. In Rethinking Incarceration, Gilliard exhorts American Christians to wake up, see the injustice of mass incarceration, and work to end it in America:
As followers of Christ, we must ask what our faith calls us to in this unprecedented era of mass incarceration. Collectively and individually, we must contemplate what bearing witness to the gospel in this critical moment entails. Dr. King said, ‘The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority’ (9).
Gilliard writes that while many American churches support prison ministries of mercy and evangelism, few advocate for prison reform. A 2016 survey of pastors shows that only one in five American churches advocate for prison reform and that black and white churches respond differently to mass incarceration. Black churches are more than twice as likely as white churches to advocate for prison reform in part because their members are more impacted by mass incarceration – about one third of black pastors estimate that at least ten percent of their members have an incarcerated family member (111).
While it is beyond the scope of this letter to describe mass incarceration in detail, I want to share a few statistics to show that mass incarceration exists in our country, state, and county:
- The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world2 and black people are five times as likely as white people to be incarcerated in the US.3
- Arkansas has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the country and black people are four times as likely as white people to be incarcerated in Arkansas.4
- Washington County has the highest incarceration rate in the state5 and black people are four times as likely as white people to be incarcerated in Washington County.6
One way to work to end mass incarceration in Washington County is to join people who have been working to do so. Two such people are Beth Coger and Sarah Moore – founders of Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition (AJRC) – who are organizing opposition to the expansion of the Washington County Jail.
In closing – I want to ask you to please read the below statement from AJRC and attend a meeting on Monday April 25 from 12-1 at Genesis Church in Fayetteville to learn more from Beth and Sarah about how you can oppose the expansion of the jail as an expression of your commitment to be united in the gospel against racism for justice generally and commitment #7 (action) specifically.
Finally – I want to share a short clip from the film 13th
5 Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition reports that Washington County has the highest incarceration rate of counties with populations of 200,000 or more in 2022. Data to support this statement is here.
Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition’s Statement on Washington County’s Latest Effort to
Use COVID Relief Funds for Jail Expansion
Early this week, the Washington County Quorum Court Jail & Law Enforcement Committee received an update on moving forward with a $20 million plan to expand the jail using COVID-relief funds, despite clear guidance from the U.S. Treasury that capital costs for jail construction are an ineligible use of funds.
Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition issues the following statement:
Washington County’s plan to move forward with using COVID relief funds to expand the jail is an irresponsible misuse of funds intended to support community programs that provide immediate and direct assistance to families and workers impacted most by the pandemic. Jails drastically increase poverty, homelessness and joblessness, inflicting devastating long-term personal, social, and economic harms on communities – the opposite objective of American Rescue Plan Act funding.
We heard testimony from Major Randall Denzer on the current conditions in the Washington County Jail due to overcrowding. Major Denzer described people sleeping on the floor, and specifically noted that a substantial number of people would not be in jail if they could afford the money bond set on their case. He spoke of people being detained on misdemeanor charges, which are, by definition, the least severe charges, begging the question as to why they are being detained in the first place. In the past, it has been the policy at the jail to not hold misdemeanant defendants, but to book them in and out the same day.
It’s time the county takes serious steps to reduce the number of people held pretrial and implements common-sense solutions, like meaningful inquiries into ability to pay at arraignment, automatic bond review hearings, and measures that increase appearance and prevent Failure to Appear. It is clear that building bigger jails is not the answer to our problems – it may even exacerbate them.
That’s why members of our community have spoken out against a jail expansion over the last several years. The Quorum Court’s latest effort to expand the jail using COVID relief funds is a clear attempt to circumvent the will of our community, and is a violation of U.S. Treasury rules – potentially leaving local taxpayers on the hook for the $20 million bill for jail construction, as well as the millions of dollars in ongoing, annual operating costs. At $27,813,327.08, our current Jail & Sheriff budgets account for over one-third (32%) of our total annual budget, and we incarcerate more people per capita than any county in Arkansas. At this time the county has made no mention of how a bigger jail and associated costs will be paid for year after year. And, the current outcry from the sheriff’s office of inability to retain staff leaves in question whether an addition could even be staffed – a safety issue for all involved.
Moving forward with this jail expansion would also be acting against the guidance of its hired experts. In 2019, the Quorum Court tapped the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to conduct a complete audit of our justice system. NCSC came back with its “Criminal Justice Assessment Study” which outlined specific recommendations for policy changes and practices that could be implemented to address jail overcrowding. To date only two of those recommendations have been implemented and it now appears that the court will move forward with the jail expansion and, in doing so, outright ignore the recommendations and guidance of its own experts.
We know how to reduce the jail population–it’s not by building a bigger one. It’s time the Quorum Court puts this grossly expensive & harmful jail project to rest and invests – without any further delay – in solutions that create greater public safety by addressing the community needs that lead to arrest & incarceration. The community is ready to pitch in and urges current leadership to move without delay on investments that will have immediate impact to decrease those held at the jail.