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Arkansas nonprofit sues Washington County over use of COVID funds for jail expansion

Antoinette Grajeda
Arkansas Advocate
Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition Executive Director Sarah Moore (right) discusses a lawsuit against Washington County outside the nonprofit’s Fayetteville office on June 4, 2024 as co-founder Beth Coger and program director Gracie Fuhrman.

A criminal justice reform group filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday requesting a judge block Washington County from using pandemic relief money to expand jail facilities.

Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition, which filed the complaint in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas alleges officials misallocated federal funds when the Washington County Quorum Court in December 2022 approved $18.8 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding for a jail expansion project.

Washington County voters in November 2022 rejected a proposed temporary sales tax increase to fund the jail expansion. County officials have said an expansion is necessary to address overcrowding.

AJRC officials argue that there are other ways to address overcrowding and that pandemic relief funding cannot be used for the purpose of expanding the jail.

“Washington County was entrusted with federal funds to mitigate the effects of COVID-19,” the complaint states. “Washington County is instead using the funds to expand its jail facilities, which runs afoul of regulatory guidance.”

Hear Arkansans discuss their personal experiences and those of loved ones who’ve been booked into the Washington County Jail.

Kelly Cantrell, public relations director for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, deferred a request for comment to County Attorney Brian Lester, who did not respond Tuesday evening. Lester told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette he was unaware of the lawsuit, which hadn’t yet been served, so he had no comment.

AJRC Executive Director Sarah Moore said the group is filing the lawsuit now because it took time to find representation, conduct research and raise money for the effort. Additionally, ARPA funding must be obligated by the end of the year, so time is running out to decide how the money will be used, should the plaintiffs prevail.

“We think that the appropriate time would be now for them to be able to revise plans in the coming months to be able to move appropriately so that this money could get reallocated,” Moore said.

Beth Coger, Washington County Quorum Court member and AJRC co-founder, said the county is putting taxpayers at risk because federal rules prohibit using ARPA money for jail expansion.

“I want to thank AJRC for bringing this because it may save the people of Washington County millions of dollars,” Coger said. “If the [U.S.] Treasury did come … and ask for this money back, where would it come from? We don’t have that kind of money lying around.”

Washington County received about $46 million in federal relief funding. According to the complaint, AJRC applied for $290,000 to fund two care managers who would assist low-income populations affected by the criminal justice system with navigating challenges surrounding housing, employment and legal difficulties.

AJRC was one of 46 organizations that applied for about $30 million in federal funding. The county did not approve any of these applications. It did, however, previously award funding to two other organizations without requiring an application, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit asserts a deprivation of federal rights because AJRC’s application was denied and the requested funding will be used for “the impermissible purpose of constructing a new jail facility.”

The complaint also alleges a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause by awarding funding to Returning Home, a nonprofit that operates a diversion program for men who would have been housed in Washington County Jail.

The lawsuit contends that because both Returning Home and AJRC work to reduce the jail population, the county is discriminating against women by denying AJRC’s request because the latter organization serves both men and women.

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.