No vacancy at the jail
By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on June 13, 2005 1:54 PM
Jessica Clark has been sitting in the Wayne County jail for more than two weeks now, and isn't scheduled to go to trial until July.
Her offense? Failure to pay child-support.
Ms. Clark, 40, has two children, ages 18 and 21, but she still owes money for child support. Her bond was originally set at $300, and has since been reduced to $100.
But she says she still can't pay it, and has no one else who can pay it for her.
She said she lost her job at Wayne Opportunity Center because she's in jail.
"I couldn't even go to my daughter's high school graduation, because I'm in here," she said. "It's like they want you to lose your job, keeping you in here."
Charles Artis was only working part-time jobs, doing yard work, when he was put in jail recently for back child support. His children are now 24 and 16 years old.
Artis has health problems, he said, and is going to try to get on disability when he gets out.
"I've got some circulation problems," he said. "I had a heart attack in August."
If Artis should experience health problems while he's in jail, the county will be responsible for paying his medical bills.
Neither of the above inmates have been charged with violent crimes, yet both are taking up space in the already overcrowded county jail. On almost any given day, a review of the list of inmates in the Wayne County Jail shows there are more prisoners than there are cells to hold them.
The jail was built to hold 200 inmates, but last week it held about 220 and the week before 240.
"Overcrowding really occurs before 200," said jail administrator Capt. James Tadlock of the Sheriff's Office. "When the population goes over 180, someone will be sleeping on the floor."
Judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and law enforcement officials all agree that the increasing jail population is a problem. But they disagree on how to solve it.
Wayne County District Attorney Branny Vickory said nearly a third of the inmates have been in the jail for less than two weeks.
"A lot are waiting for trial, non-violent," he said. "If we could have them report there once a day, maybe wear an ankle bracelet, they could keep working their jobs."
Superior Court Judge Jerry Braswell said about 30 percent of prisoners are being held for serious felony cases. If the jail population is to be reduced by letting some prisoners go early, the focus would need to be on the less serious cases that are heard in District Court rather than the more serious Superior Court cases.
"We need some innovative pre-trial release programs so that you don't have as many people in jail," Braswell said. "Although everyone with a pending case isn't in jail, once they are in jail, we should try to dispose of the cases as quickly as possible."
Braswell said the over-crowding problem is complicated and needs the input of people involved at every point in the legal system: lawmen, lawyers and court officials. A committee made up of lawyers, court officials and lawmen meets regularly to try to come up with ways to reduce the overcrowding.
One factor in slowing up court cases that leads to more inmates being kept for longer periods is the slow return of evidence from state labs in Raleigh, which process the evidence.
For example, Vickory said it took prosecutors almost two years to get back the lab work on the Precious Whitfield murder case.
District Court Judge Joe Setzer said it can take drug cases up to a year to come to court because of the backlog in the Raleigh labs.
There are 15 defendants in the Wayne County jail now waiting for results from the state.
Setzer said unless the county considers sending the evidence to private labs, he doesn't see how that can improve.
Defense attorney W. Caroll Turner has represented a number of clients in drug cases, he said, in which they have waited for a year for evidence from the state lab.
"We've entered pleas, without all the evidence, because the person is so ready to get out of jail," Turner said.
Other problems in moving cases forward, say some legal officials, include incomplete investigations.
"Probable cause may be developed and the person's in jail, but the district attorney's office can't do anything until the case report is completed," Vickory said. "We can't send it to the grand jury until we get the file."
There are two investigators in the district attorney's office who evaluate the files once they are submitted, sometimes finding facts that were missed in the initial investigation.
Turner said the length of time it takes for reports to be completed is a problem.
"It takes an average of three months after a person is arrested until they are indicted," he said. "Usually, within a couple of weeks after the arrest, if I'm appointed to the case, I'll go to the district attorney's office to see the file."
He said files are often incomplete, with just a copy of the warrant inside.
"They are still waiting for the investigation to be completed," Turner said. "If there's one thing that would move things along, it's getting completed reports quicker."
Turner said he and an assistant district attorney were prepared to reach a plea agreement on a case, but couldn't do it because there was no completed report in the file.
"Every defense attorney I know has run into a situation like this," Turner said.
Turner believes that if the system required a faster turn-around time for reports, cases would move quicker through the system.
"I'd like to see a time-frame requirement, say 30 days," Turner said.
He said sometimes the cases are eventually dismissed because reports aren't finished in time.
"I've also known where people have spent five or six months in jail awaiting trial on a felony charge," he said. "Then the report is finally finished, and they see that it wasn't a felony to begin with."
Defendants in jail are not only arrested by sheriff's deputies, but also by the Goldsboro Police Department, the Mount Olive Police Department and other municipalities within the county.
Wayne County Sheriff Carey Winders said his officers try to get their cases finished as quickly as possible.
"Sometimes they have to re-interview witnesses, or go back to get additional information requested by the district attorney," Winders said. "We don't want to leave any stone unturned."
The sheriff said changing discovery requirements has added steps to the compilation of a report.
He pulled a 1970 financial fraud case file from a cabinet.
"These were just a few sheets back then, and this was an SBI case," he said. "There was nothing to them. Now they are inches thick.
"When we have a financial fraud or embezzlement case, the completed file is often two full boxes," Winders said.
Patrol officers that arrest someone for committing a felony, such as breaking and entering, have to write up the report. That sometimes takes time, Winders said, because the officers don't have access to an office.
His department is working on a way to allow an officer to access information from his car so that the report can be written up at the scene.
"Right now we have limited link-ups, which can run license tags and driver's licenses," Winders said. "The new system, which is in the budget, will let the officers type up the reports in the car. That will make a big difference."
Goldsboro Police Chief Tim Bell said the case report turnaround time has improved since the District Attorney's office started assigning someone to keep up with how fast the reports are finished.
"This has helped us monitor it much better than we did in the past," he said. "I think we're pretty much on top of it."
Another part of the system that could be improved, Turner said, is the setting of bonds.
Braswell sets the bail and bond policy for magistrates and the pre-trial release conditions for defendants. He said court officials are considering ways to keep relatively harmless offenders out of the jail.
"One of the things we're looking at is a way of releasing non-violent, non-threatening, without having to place (them) in jail."
Bonds should only be high enough to "reasonably assure the presence in court of the defendant," according to the written policy.
Turner said bonds are sometimes raised after a defendant makes a disparaging comment to a law officer.
While Turner doesn't think a defendant should speak disrespectfully to an officer, he also doesn't think the infraction should result in a higher bond.
The bond policy supports Turner's thinking, saying in underlined text that "bail may not be used as punishment."
Turner said that it is almost impossible to get an active jail term for two of the lowest felony classifications, Class H and I.
"But it's amazing how many times a person remains in custody up to five months on a class I felony, because they come from a poor family and can't secure their release," he said. "They're taking up cell space, and the tragedy is that most of them wouldn't even get an active sentence."
Some Class I are forgery, fraud, making false statements, bigamy, stealing a pet, violating bingo laws.
"You have to use judgment and common sense," Turner said. "Obviously, with stalking, you would want to look into those circumstances before setting bond, to see what the background was."
"But violation of beach bingo laws ... You are not going to endanger anyone if you're out on a low bond."
Turner said it is surprising how often people are locked up on a misdemeanor charge, but couldn't get out on bail.
"Most of these are not flight risks," he said. "They would come to court."
Turner said in those cases, the county is spending a lot of money to house a person that could have been free on an unsecured bond, or a lower bond.
Braswell initiated a "rocket docket" program two years ago to help move cases through the system faster.
"It gave inmates a mechanism to write me if they were ready to dispose of cases," Braswell said. "Who knows best when they are ready to plead guilty but the defendants?"
Braswell would then set a calendar date, usually on a Friday afternoon, and work the case into his court schedule.
But he stopped, he said, mainly because the county wouldn't address security issues at the courthouse.
"I couldn't get anywhere with the (county) commissioners regarding security," Braswell said. "I won't waste my time to conduct rocket-docket sessions when they weren't concerned about our safety or well-being."
Braswell said he believes the county, through the jail committee, is now looking more seriously at courthouse security.
"We have talked about expanding security in the courthouse, installing metal detectors and getting pass cards for employees," County Manager Lee Smith said.
Braswell said another reason he stopped using the "rocket docket" was he didn't have enough staff to keep up with it.
"We were overloaded. The secretary was overloaded," he said.
If the program was reinstituted, he said, he would need a jail coordinator to monitor the inmate list and the requests for quicker pleas.
Vickory says it will take the work of everyone involved to solve the problem.
"We're trying to push cases through the system faster," Vickory said. "But it's one area where there's no boss of everybody. There's no 'king of court."
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