06/13/05 — Building a new jail might not be the answer

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Building a new jail might not be the answer

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on June 13, 2005 1:53 PM

When Wayne County commissioners learned in January it would cost more than $14 million to expand the county jail, they decided to look at less expensive ways to handle the growing jail population.

According to Sheriff Carey Winders, it costs almost $45 a day to house each inmate. Winders said the jail has been above its capacity for more than a year, which has forced some prisoners to sleep on mattresses on the floor.

A consultant hired by the county told commissioners they could build onto the jail and increase its capacity from 200 to 456, which should be enough to serve the county for 20 years.

Jim Brennan is the head of a consulting firm hired by the county in 2003 to study the inmate population and to recommend ways to reduce it.

One of the company's recommendations was to reconvene the county's jail committee,composed of judges, law enforcement officials, the jail administrator, the director of the Day Reporting Center and local lawyers. The committee was formed several years ago to find solutions to the problem.

The committee has met several times over the past few months and has come up with some possible solutions on how to reduce the jail population.

Wayne County District Attorney Branny Vickory agrees there are too many inmates in the jail at any given time.

But he doesn't think the best answer to the problem is to build a new jail. No matter how big you build a jail, it always becomes filled to capacity, Vickory said.

When Wayne doubled the size of its jail, it almost immediately filled up, he said. Pitt County recently increased its jail capacity from 100 to 375 and it is already full, he pointed out.

One of the problems with local jails, Vickory said, is that most of them were built to hold the most violent criminals.

Offenders of non-violent crimes, such as driving without a license, failure to pay child support or shoplifters, shouldn't be housed in the same part of the jail as the violent offenders, he said.

"But they're sitting there like murders and rapists," he said. "And the jails are expensive to run."

A decade ago, Vickory said, while the current jail was under construction, the county refitted an abandoned warehouse to hold less dangerous inmates.

The county could look into getting another building to use as an auxiliary jail, he said. "Perhaps we could get a place that only needs a few deputies," he said. "And the people who need to serve weekend time for minor crimes could serve there."

W. Carroll Turner has been a defense attorney in Wayne County for 31 years, and has been on the court-appointed list for most of that time.

He doesn't believe the county needs a new jail because it's too costly.

"We need to be smarter about the way we move cases through the court system," Turner said.

That statement, he said, wasn't a condemnation of the people involved in the system now.

"I just think improvements could be made," he said.

County Manager Lee Smith said the committee had discussed bonding policies, and looking at the structuring of bonds to see if they were too high or too low.

"We have to make sure we do a daily review of the jail list and find out why those folks are there, have they seen an attorney."

Smith said committee members have been talking about using a room in the courthouse where judges and lawyers could go for first appearances using a video system.

"We're pricing what teleconferencing would cost," Smith said. "There are places all over the country doing that, and it reduces movement of inmate security."

Another proposal being discussed by the committee involves using video cameras.

"Right now the jailers bring the defendants to court every day, and they have to be supervised," District Court Judge Joseph Setzer said. "The defendant could sit from jail, get affidavits, have first appearances and save some court time."

Setzer said committee members would have to "have to think outside the box and get away from norm and tradition" to handle the overcrowding situation.

Smith said the county is considering an electronic monitoring program as an alternative sentence or when defendants are awaiting trial.

"We're looking at paying $5 to $7 a day, versus paying $45 to $50 a day," he said. "We're targeting a number around 60, average daily reduction."

"It's not just about saving money, but it's also about safety," Smith said.

As far as SBI lab results, he is hoping new technicians hired by the state will help with the backlog.

"But we're looking to see if it's possible for a local entity to take on the backlog," he said. "We're going to see about a contract with a lab company."