Arkansas panel approves ARPA funds for attorneys

An Arkansas Legislative subcommittee approved $9 million worth of American Rescue Plan Act money to hire attorneys and staff to address backlogs of legal cases delayed because of COVID-19.

The Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee approved $4.5 million in appropriations for the Arkansas Public Defender Commission to hire “licensed attorneys and staff” to help with cases that accumulated between March 2020 and May 2021 when jury trials were limited.

While jury trials were on hold, felony arrests continued to stack up and, in some areas, increased “substantially,” the commission said in its application.

“The limited number of public defender positions coupled with the staggering number of cases to which we are appointed and the inability to resolve cases through jury trial has resulted in full-time public defenders having anywhere from 300-400 active felony cases at any given time,” the Arkansas Public Defender Commission wrote. “Part-time public defenders are likewise carrying in excess of 150 felony cases. This unmanageable caseload creates hardships not only on the public defender and client, but also county budgets which fund the jails and court systems.”

It went on to say the daily cost to house one inmate in a local facility ranged from $35 to $55 or higher, and resolving just one case 30 days earlier could save between $1,000 to $1,500.

The legislative subcommittee also approved $4.5 million in ARPA funds for the Auditor of State to hire deputy prosecuting attorneys to help address the backlog of cases.

“The new deputy prosecuting attorneys will focus their time and attention to cases specifically identified as COVID-19 caused backlog,” the application said, adding the new hires will be assigned throughout the state as needed.

Additionally, the subcommittee approved an amendment to previously approved funding for the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.

The department previously received approval from the Arkansas American Rescue Plan Act Steering Committee to use over $2.4 million in ARPA funds to implement broadband in 27 locations within the Arkansas State Parks and Arkansas Welcome Centers. It said the project cost less than originally anticipated and requested approval to use a portion of $215,000 left over for other broadband projects in Arkansas State Parks, which the subcommittee approved.

The Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism also received approval to use approximately $6,000 on two additional broadband construction projects not included in its original request.

“These projects will benefit the state by providing service and safety to visitors, staff, and the surrounding communities,” the department said.

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