40/29 TV has done some in-depth reporting on the sentencing of drug court defendants to unpaid jobs at Simmons Foods and Hendren Plastics, a long-running practice that is now the subject of multiple lawsuits.
It includes a remarkably extensive interview from Circuit Judge Thomas Smith, who oversees the drug court in Benton County. Judges don’t normally talk about their work on the bench. He describes the nonprofit, Drug Alcohol and Recovery Program, DARP, as a “last chance” for offenders — a “tool when we need to use it.” He said he’d never heard of anyone who’s been mistreated. State and federal courts now have lots of documents for him to read. Smith, generally, seems wholly unapologetic. Without the assignments to unpaid jobs, the county or state would have to pay to house the defendants in jail.
Smith said he understood defendants sent to DARP get room and board and counseling. The lawsuits say the conditions are poor, food includes bologna sandwiches and expired Little Debbie cakes, counseling is all but non-existent and workers sometimes don’t get benefits for on-the-job injuries. The suit also contends drug use is rampant among people sent to DARP for supposed rehabilitation. They do get a mandatory weekly visit to a church in Gravette.
40/29 also interviewed Sen. Jim Hendren, whose company has used the labor, paying money to DARP, but not workers. He’s dropped out of the program because of the publicity and lawsuits that name his company among defendants. “It’s disheartening,” he said, that the defendants now may have to go to prison rather than jobs.