11/16/07 — Judge, DA disagree over jail liaison position

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Judge, DA disagree over jail liaison position

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on November 16, 2007 2:17 PM

A new position created by Wayne County commissioners is intended to reduce the jail population and keep court-appointed attorneys on their toes.

But officials don't fully agree how effective a court liaison is at keeping the number of inmates down at the Wayne County Jail.

Discussions began last year about the court liaison position filled in August by temporary laborer Corin Craft, Superior Court Judge Jerry Braswell said.

The position does a couple of things, the judge said -- managing volumes of inmate mail, keeping a list of court-appointed attorney visits with jail-bound clients and checking out other charges an inmate might be facing.

The mail is an important piece of the jail population puzzle, he said, because jail inmates might say they want to "make a deal" in their correspondence. Other information might also prove pertinent, the judge said.

Handling such information is important not just to jail efficiency, but to the county's bottom line -- Braswell said law enforcement tells him jail time costs $40 per prisoner per day.

And because much of that mail went to District Attorney Branny Vickory's office-- which is bound by rules that govern communication with inmates -- the judge thinks he can better control the jail population.

For his part, Vickory agrees that the judge's office has more leeway when it comes to talking with defendants.

"Judge Braswell doesn't have the same types of restriction, as far as communication with them," Vickory said. "There's only so much we can do with those letters."

Vickory also agrees a sign-in sheet for attorneys visiting their clients in jail might also be beneficial, and said he works closely with Braswell.

But he does not necessarily agree that the judge and the court liaison are managing the population of the jail more effectively.

However, he said jails in Lenoir and Wayne County are actively managed by members of his office, and that the jails are "a huge part of our lives."

Braswell and County Manager Lee Smith said inmates often sat in jail longer than the time required by law for the offense for which they were charged.

But Vickory said that might have to do with the investigative process.

"He (the judge) doesn't know where our investigations are, but if somebody's been sitting down there a long time, and we haven't sent it to the grand jury, we usually have reasons," Vickory said.

Among those reasons are "evidence is at the lab, we haven't finished the investigation, we're waiting for reports to come in from police officers," the district attorney said.

Braswell said his previous "rocket docket" program required the circuit judge -- who presides over 12 counties -- to come back to the office on Fridays. It also caused "other problems," he said.

Now, pre-trial release officer Theresa Barratt and the court liaison officer work together to let accused people who meet certain criteria out on house arrest and through other means, the judge said.

Previously, county and judicial officials attended monthly meetings to work on the jail population and its related cost.

The county manager said he stopped those meetings after he became disillusioned with them.

"Quite frankly, we stopped having that," Smith said. "It did not seem effective to me."

The county manager said the new position costs the county around $26,000 per year through Mega Force Staffing Services of North Spence Avenue.

The county manager said one of his biggest issues was court-appointed attorneys neglecting clients in jail, which adds to the overall cost of disposing of the case.

"These public defenders ... as far as we were concerned, have not been active," Smith said.

Smith said commissioners will review the position at the end of January -- a six-month period -- to determine whether they will continue funding it.