04/20/09 — Jail population drops below 200

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Jail population drops below 200

By Steve Herring
Published in News on April 20, 2009 1:46 PM

The Wayne County Jail population has dipped below 200 for the first time in many months and well below the 265 inmates housed there just a few short months ago.

Superior Court Judge Arnold Jones attributes the decline to the work ethic of court officials, better communications between all court agencies and the increased use of electronic house monitoring.

Overcrowding has been a problem at the jail, which is designed to hold about 200 inmates, since it was built in 1994.

"When I came into office (in January) the jail population was around 265," Jones said Tuesday. "Over the past few years, it consistently has been over 200, 225, 230. (The week of April 13) at the end of court we had the jail population down to 196.

"Of course that can fluctuate and that is not to say that it won't be 210 at the end of this week or it might be lower. That number is one that can fluctuate depending on the number of arrests being made and things of that nature. I think it is great for Wayne County that we can get that number down."

Jones said statistics show that it costs between $50 to $60 per day to house an inmate. It costs, on average, $8.43 per day for a person under electronic house arrest.

Based on those figures reducing the jail population from 265 to 196 equates to $3,450 based on the $50 and $4,140 based on $60.

"That is a big savings to the county," Jones said. "I think that probably a lot of people don't understand that the Wayne County Jail is not a jail where people are sentenced typically and put in jail. It typically is a place where people are awaiting disposition of their case.

"I think when we are moving the jail numbers down and getting below 200 what that means is that we are moving cases at a faster pace. One of the best things I see is the communication between the different courthouse agencies. Chief District Court Judge David Brantley and I talk on a regular basis. We discuss how we can work together to make things work better up here."

Jones said he hopes the trend will continue.

"If in three months we have been able to make this progress, I am really excited about the progress I am hoping we can make going on from here."

The reduction was made without the jail liaison position that the county eliminated when it terminated the contract in November of a temporary employee who had been filling that position. The job included managing inmate mail, maintaining a list of court-appointed attorney visits with incarcerated clients and checking on other charges an inmate might be facing.

Jones said he has spoken with County Manager Lee Smith about the position.

The idea, he said, was to start out communicating, and if there was a need for the position, then it is certainly something that could be brought back.

"At this point I don't know that there will be or that there is a need for it because it seems to me right now we have been able to get the jail population down to a level that I don't think it has been at in a few years," he said. "But that is an option, and I would consider it should circumstances present itself where we felt it was needed and would look to implement something like that or that particular position."

The Day Reporting Center under the direction of Theresa Barratt, has been "a great asset to the court," Jones said. He expressed appreciation to the county for purchasing additional house arrests devices.

"In situations where it is appropriate, we have been able to put people waiting trial on house arrest," he said. "It is a lot less expensive to use that than to keep them in jail."

Jones said he remains in regular contact with Ms. Barratt about the jail population, and if there are people who should be considered for electronic house arrest.

If she says there are some then Jones said he may talk to Brantley and Court of Court Pam Minshew to arrange some time to get those people in court and consider if whether they would qualify.

"What we have got to do first and foremost with these people, if they are released under some form of electronic house monitoring, we still have to consider safety issues to the public," Jones said. "I am not going to put the public into any unsafe situation by releasing a prisoner through electronic house arrest. So it is not something where we just cattle them in and cattle them out. It is still a case-by-case consideration."

Jones recalled a recent newspaper article in which law enforcement officials were quoted as saying they had delayed some arrests because of a lack of jail space.

"I have children, I have family and I sure don't want my family or anybody's family exposed to potential harm if it can be avoided," Jones said. "Therefore, we need to make space available in the jail, but at the same time we have got to really look carefully at the electronic house program and the people that might be served with that program. We do not want to put anybody on the street that would cause any harm. Anything we can try to do to prevent that we are going to do that."

Another way the population is being reduced is through the use of administrative sessions, Jones said. Those sessions are held when no trials are scheduled.

During those sessions, probation cases are considered on Mondays and active misdemeanors on Tuesday and felonies during the rest of the week. During that time, the district attorney's office can offer plea deals and defense attorneys can consider them.

"A lot of cases are resolved," Jones said. "The administrative sessions are working out well, I think."

Beginning in July, Jones will hold court in Craven, Carteret and Pamlico counties.

Jones asked for and received permission from the state Supreme Court to be assigned to administrative sessions in Wayne County Superior Court during the first week of each month.

"I wanted to do that," he said. "I felt if I could stay involved in the process and know month from month what is going on that I could be more effective doing that than someone who hasn't been here month after month."

Court sessions are starting earlier in the mornings as well.

"I think this has given us some extra time that wasn't utilized," Jones said. "I think it is making a difference in how we can move cases."

Jones also has initiated quarterly "jail meetings" where people involved with the jail meet to discuss ideas on how do things more efficiently.

Jones, who said he sees regular numbers on the jail population, calls the decline "a steady" one.

"But when it got down to 196 last week, I was really happy," he said. "I felt that was a combined effort from a lot of people. You have got remember the cost of a new jail could be $55 million. If we can keep numbers down for as long as we can, and it may get to a point where it becomes something beyond our control, but if we can keep them down for as long as we can then I believe we are saving taxpayers a lot of money particularly in these economic times.

"I am quite certain the county had rather spend money for other programs than they would to invest in a $55 million jail. How can we avoid spending this money? Well, I think we can avoid spending this money by doing what we are doing now. We are all working for the same goal and working in an efficient way -- the most efficient way we do that is that we continue to discuss amongst ourselves the way to improve this and I think it is working."