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AAC has expanded services to counties

By Mark Whitmore, AAC Chief Legal Counsel

In years past, the capacity of the Association of Arkansas Counties (AAC) to assist counties was hampered by significant limitations on our resources. We can now proudly proclaim that the AAC provides an array and depth of services to our members.

The boards of the AAC and the AAC Risk Management Fund (AACRMF) have provided additional and necessary resources to support increased levels of services. We find it fulfilling to better serve our county officials.

Education/Training/Legal Services: AAC staff strives to provide education and training for our county officials and their staff. We have an education coordinator, Karan Skarda, who does an excellent job in facilitating training for seven of our nine county affiliate organizations. We provide easy access to the law through our litany of publications. We strive each week to provide a working understanding and informed guidance on the laws of Arkansas. Our legal staff has grown substantially. We had a single attorney at the AAC in 2002. We now have six attorneys on staff: Brandy McAllister, Lindsey Bailey, Colin Jorgensen, JaNan Davis, Melissa Hollowell and yours truly; four law clerks: Blake Gary, Jessica Fontenot, Adrienne Criswell, Kristina Farmer; and two legal assistants/paralegals: Johnna Hoffman and Fonda Fitzgerald. We strive to provide legal services and benefits to all of the 75 member counties of the AAC and the AAC Workers Compensation Trust (AACWCT) and the 56 member counties of the AACRMF. Recently, we’ve made major advancements in the creation of technology-based programs. Below are a few of the recent advancements of services to our member counties.

Guardian RFID Inmate Tracking System: In 2008, Guardian RFID obtained the endorsement of the National Sheriffs Association for its inmate tracking system. The AACRMF commenced providing this service to our member counties in 2014 and the program now serves 30 AACRMF counties. It’s an extremely useful tool for staff management, litigation management and claims prevention. Jason Owens, AACRMF contract litigation counsel, explains: “RFID data — much like video evidence — is almost unassailable in the courtroom. Also, much like video, RFID data has invaluable utility prior to litigation, both as a constant accountability tool for employees and as a powerful decision-making tool in the pre-litigation claims process.”

Justice Bridge Audio-Visual Arraignment: In Fall 2017, AACRMF began a program we call Justice Bridge in collaboration with Keystone Solutions, Inc. Prior to the program counties had to transport state and local prisoners throughout Arkansas (to and from various state prisons to our local courts). AAC and AACRMF board member, Baxter County Sheriff John Montgomery, conceived the program. The program allows for courts to conduct certain hearings by video technology. The key is that the Arkansas Department of Corrections (DOC) afforded the AACRMF permission to install suitable video arraignment equipment into the 17 state prisons in Arkansas. Each participating county has video phone equipment allocated to their local jail, circuit courts, prosecutor and sheriff, etc. The program saves all of the attendant costs, labor, overtime in transporting state inmates to and from state prisons to our local courts for hearings (and as well transportation from local jails or other jails to court). The system reduces risk of liability such as escape or injury. Thirty-two of the 56 AACRMF member counties are online with the Justice Bridge. Other entities, such as district courts and public defenders, may procure Justice Bridge video equipment as well. The savings annually to our counties is a seven-digit figure. We are working on connecting Justice Bridge with courtroom interpreters. The Justice Bridge expedites court hearings. It has a positive impact on easing jail overcrowding. The potential for use and efficiencies is limitless.

Opioid Litigation: The AAC, the Arkansas Municipal League, counties and cities in Arkansas collaborated to file suit in the Crittenden County Circuit Court in Arkansas over the opioid epidemic. Our litigation will include all 75 counties in Arkansas. The lawsuit seeks to determine the responsibilities of certain manufacturers and distributors for the opioid epidemic in Arkansas and to remediate the crisis. Most counties and cities in the United States that sued over the opioid epidemic have been moved into the multi-jurisdictional litigation in Cleveland, Ohio. However, our litigation is uniquely and well postured to provide the best result for the counties, cities and citizens of Arkansas. AAC extends resources to the opioid litigation. Colin Jorgensen, AAC Litigation Counsel, has an update on the opioid litigation. See pages 23-24.

MDILog: The Arkansas Coroners’ Association in cooperation with Arkansas Regional Organ Recovery Agency (ARORA) launched a new state reporting system for coroners. MDILog reporting software has been purchased and provided free of charge to all coroners in the state of Arkansas. There are multiple benefits to a system of this caliber. It is a win-win scenario for the state. It will provide more opportunity to donate organs and tissue to save lives through ARORA. This occurs by simply creating a case file at the coroner’s office within three to five hours of the death. There is a data push that sends the information electronically to ARORA. In return for the provided software, the coroner must simply use the system for case management. Statistically there is a significant lack of data statewide from the county coroners. This system will provide the state with real-time, accurate data. The technical departments of MDILog along with those of the Arkansas State Crime Lab and The Arkansas Department of Health Vital Statistics Division have established a link between the systems for that real-time data to be collected and disseminated. MDILog also has the potential to replace the current body submission form required by the medical examiner for autopsy cases. This will provide a faster, more efficient service to the entire state. Use of MDILog will put us more to the forefront of fighting the opioid epidemic we are facing, along with taking care of our families more efficiently. Currently, 40 county coroners are using MDILog. Is your county using MDILog? (See the map above). It’s vital for a litany of reasons that our coroners provide good data to the state and federal agencies. MDILog is a Godsend.

Regional Crisis Stabilization Units: During the 2017 legislative session, the General Assembly and Governor supported the creation of four regional crisis stabilization units (CSU) to address the needs of those in crisis (persons with mental illness or low-level substance abuse). CSUs are operating in Sebastian and Pulaski counties. CSUs were awarded for Craighead and Washington counties, and those regional CSUs are in progress. This legislative ask was a major undertaking. The implementation of a regional CSU by the host counties has been a Herculean effort. Ultimately, we hope to have eight regional CSUs operating in Arkansas. Some of the challenges for CSU host counties will be to gather data and push that data to appropriate state agencies. The data will help demonstrate the efficacy of CSUs and propriety of the justice reinvestment for CSUs.

Criminal Justice Efficiency and Safety: Act 423 of 2017: The Criminal Justice Efficiency and Safety Act of 2017, also encouraged other continuing challenges in the collection and transfer of criminal justice data. We need to gather and transfer data from the booking of state and local inmates and screenings for mental illness, substance abuse, alcohol abuse and opioid abuse. The act also encouraged the collection of data by Arkansas Crime Information Center (ACIC) on the number and status of persons incarcerated in county jails. These challenges in collecting data and pushing it to proper state or federal agencies will be an ongoing undertaking for county officials and the AAC. Sheriffs, jail administrators, CSU host counties, Department of Human Services (DHS) and software providers will need to closely collaborate. If we succeed in these efforts, our citizens will be better served.

Jailer & Jail Administrator Training: During the 2019 legislative session, several bills are in the category of training. The sheriffs’ legislative package included Senate Bill 237, now Act 372 of 2019, sponsored by Rep. Keith Slape and Sen. Ronald Caldwell. The bill doubled the $20 booking fee paid by criminal defendants convicted or pleading no contest to felonies of Class A misdemeanors (the highest category of misdemeanor). The revenue increase for the jails could be in excess of one million dollars. Additionally, the bill provides for one-tenth of the revenues collected to be allocated to Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy (ALETA) for use in funding the requisite jailers training in various regions in Arkansas, jail administrator/jail management courses, and jailer training modules, etc.

Deputy Coroner Training: Meanwhile, Senate Bill 193, now Act 238 of 2019, sponsored by Sen. Scott Flippo and Rep. Fred Love addressed training of deputy coroners in Arkansas. In 2013, Act 551 of 2013, sponsored by Rep. Mary Slinkard and then Rep. Andrea Lea (current State Auditor), provided for training for coroners and deputies. Act 238 of 2019, is phase two and assures our deputy coroners are being trained just like law enforcement, 911 dispatchers and jailers.

The declared mission of AAC is to: “provide a single source of cooperative support and information for all counties and county and district officials through the provisions of general research, public education programs, and conducting seminars for county governments in Arkansas.” We are far from exceeding our objectives, however, we’ve made major strides. Service to our county officials is a fulfilling undertaking.

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