Friday, August 22, 2008

New Feature: Law and Order in the Ozarks

I don't really love that heading, but here's my idea for a new series on Legal Ruralism. I'm a long-time subscriber to The Newton County Times, the weekly newspaper for the county where I grew up in Arkansas. It's typically just 8 pages a week, sometimes more during fair season. There aren't a lot of ads (well, more during election season), and it's chock full of information about county happenings, including obituaries. I'll tell you more about the paper, of course, as this series develops.

Since I started writing about the intersection of law with rural livelihoods, I pay a lot more attention to the items about crime, policing, and such, and so I've decided to feature some story from the paper each week. I can't guarantee it'll always be directly related to law, but the idea is to use the paper's coverage of events there as a jumping off point to discuss my thoughts about, well, law and order in rural places. Unfortunately, very few stories in the paper get picked up on its website, and I've never seen a Newton County photo there. This is especially unfortunate for my purposes because there are some incredible photos I'd like to share with you here. (Photo above is of the Buffalo National River (BNR), which winds through the county; I posted it just for visual interest and to convey how scenic the county is; I won't go into the links between the BNR and law in this post).

Just a reminder of some basics about Newton County before we get started. It is, I believe, the least densely populated county in Arkansas, with about 10 persons/square mile. The total population in 2000 was 8,608, and the county seat, Jasper, has a population of 498. Newton County is one of two persistently poor counties in Northwest Arkansas, the other being Searcy County to the east. This means that more than 20% of the residents have been living below the poverty line in every decennial census since records were first kept in 1960. (There are other persistently poor counties in the state, but they are in the Mississippi Delta). Newton County has no industry. Sixty percent of the county is Ozark National Forest and BNR, so the county has a fair number of government employees. Otherwise, tourism, timber, and education (the county has four schools but, following consolidation, only two school districts) are the big employers. There are a lot of family farms, but few row crops -- mostly cattle and pigs.

So, now I'm looking at the August 7, 2008 edition of the Newton County Times, and four of the six stories on the front page have a legal angle. This seems extraordinary to me because my recollection of my childhood is that the law was largely irrelevant to the lives of most of the county's residents. That may still be the case, but here are the four headlines:
  • Sales taxes asked for new jail -- I have blogged about this issue before; the 100+-year-old-jail has effectively been condemned, and two inmates committed suicide there in the late spring. This caused it to be closed for a while, with inmates taken to neighboring Carroll County. The latest is that Newton County's November ballot will seek a .5% sales and use tax to finance construction of a new jail and law enforcement complex, as well as a second .5% tax to pay for the maintenance and operation of that facility. I hope they pass -- the county needs this facility, and very little in federal grants is available to meet even such needs.
  • Laverty earns praise of state prosecutors -- Laverty is the state senator for a district that includes Newton County and some some parts of neighboring counties. The story reports that he has just received the "Advocate for Justice" award from the Arkansas Prosecutors Association. Specifically, he is being praised for helping the county get money for a drug court and for an extra deputy prosecutor, as well as for his support of the association's 2007 legislative program. It isn't clear from the report whether the drug court is in Newton County or in nearby Carroll County, which is more populous (25,357). Wherever it is in the area, I'm pleased to hear about it. Such courts are an aspect of a mature criminal justice system.
  • Murder suspect hospitalized -- this story reports that a woman who is accused of shooting her husband in the chest with a shotgun on Sunday night had to be hospitalized the next day after she passed out in the Newton County Jail (yep, the infamous one that was closed down in June after the inmate suicides). This is going to be an interesting story to follow -- a wife shooting her husband, both in their 30s. I'll hold my tongue about who the initial aggressor was until we know more, but bear in mind that I'm just finishing an article on domestic violence in rural places, and I've been thinking and writing about the particular character of rural patriarchy for about 18 months so . . . well, stay tuned.
  • Police say dogs "tortured"--this is, I think, the saddest of all because it involves a juvenile. It reports that a 41-year-old man made a court appearance in late July for burglary and animal abuse. The man's accomplice was a 15-year-old, and a video tape showed him "severely abusing several small animals." More details of this abuse are given in the news report, but I'll spare you. The bond for the 41-year-old has been set at $25,000. The youth was "set to be in juvenile court in Harrison." Harrison is the micropolitan center in neighboring Boone County. This is not specified in the story, but I suspect that under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1980, the youth could only be held in Newton County's jail, an adult facility, for six hours, although 2-day extensions may be granted to rural facilities under "special circumstances."
Of the final two items on the front page, one is about repairs to two state highways that run through the county and the other is a photo taken by a Newton County resident. The caption is "Back yard drama," and the photo shows a Kingsnake eating a Copperhead. Now you know why I'm regretting that these photos aren't available online for me to share with you! This is quite a shot.

I'm looking forward to hearing your alternative suggestions for a heading for this series.

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