07/06/10 — Crowded jail still concern in county

View Archive

Crowded jail still concern in county

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 6, 2010 1:46 PM

Half of North Carolina's county jails were at more than 100 percent capacity at some point in recent months, according to a survey by the state Association of County Commissioners.

Wayne County's lockup was among those overcrowded detention centers.

The statistic comes as no surprise to Superior Court Judge Arnold Jones and county officials who have been struggling with finding ways to reduce the jail population.

In the 18 months that Jones has been in office, finding ways to manage the jail population by keeping it at 200 or less has been one of his primary goals.

"One of the things that I was really concerned about when I was campaigning, and that I talk about, is our jail," Jones said. "I think numbers that I saw when I was campaigning, if we built a new jail it was going to cost in the neighborhood of $50 million. I am quite certain that number, if we were to build a jail today, would be more than that. Like everything else, cost does not go down, it goes up.

"I have worked really hard and have gotten other people working to try to address that. I think of the things we are doing, some of them are new and some of them are making sure we follow through on things."

The county hopes to forestall the need to build additional jail space and also to keep the cost of maintaining inmates down. The survey indicated that the average cost of taking care of an inmate is about $59 per day, or more than $21,000 a year.

Each Thursday, Jones meets with representatives of the Day Reporting Center, the district attorney's office and with defense attorneys who wish to participate.

"We are looking at people who might qualify to get out on a GPS tracking pre-trial release," Jones said. "It is a lot less expensive if we can keep someone on a GPS tracking device pre-trial than if we keep them in jail. We are not going to put the public in harm's way. We are looking at those defendants who were not jailed on violent offenses.

"It has been really good. Day Reporting Center has been working really well and the county has been very cooperative in securing more GPS units. We have not had any problems that I know of with these pre-trial GPS situations. That has been a big help to our jail."

Jones attended a Superior Court judges' conference recently, and brought home information on the latest GPS technology. He said he plans to look into that technology to see if it will help further reduce the pre-trial population.

There are many factors that must be considered, the most important one being public safety, he said.

However, even with the pre-trial release it remains a constant struggle because it is like a treadmill, Jones said.

"We have to be constantly attentive to those numbers," he said. "I think one of the biggest obstacles that I did not anticipate, I don't think anybody anticipated a couple of years ago, was our strained budget crisis in North Carolina.

"Between 30 to 40 people in jail are people who have already been convicted and have been sentenced to go to the state Department of Correction, but because of budgetary cutbacks and a domino effect of that, there is a lack of space in the prison units. Prisoners in Wayne County have not been able to be moved out like they were a year or two ago. That is an extra concern we didn't anticipate maybe 18 months ago, but the county is dealing with it."

Jones also has revived a program of meetings between Superior Court and District Court judges, district attorneys, defense attorneys, jail staff, Sheriff's Office, probation and parole and the Day Reporting Center.

"We talk about things that are working well or concerns that we have that need to be improved on. I think that puts us on the same plane and that helps us a whole lot."

One of the new things in the works is a video system for the jail that will be installed by the end of summer.

"It will, I think, allow us a quicker path, if you will, to getting jail cases addressed in court," Jones said. "We won't have to move prisoners. We can do it (court appearances) from the jail. I just think it will speed us in two ways. We will not have to transport them from the jail when it is time to come to court. Also, by having the convenience of a video system, we can address jail cases quicker. Again, space is a precious commodity."

The jail population has been managed without the use of a jail liaison position that the county eliminated in November 2008.

"So far we have worked fine without it," Jones said. "I think what we have done, Day Reporting Center has added a staff position. I am not sure of all of her duties, but one of the duties that she is performing, she is interviewing those defendants in the jail. When I say interview it's only to make sure if they are released on pre-trial release that they have someplace to stay. We cannot let anybody out on a pre-trial GPS who doesn't have a residence."

Jones said he has spoken with County Manager Lee Smith about additional staff and that Smith has been receptive.

"To this point, I think we are well staffed as it is. Once we get the video system in we may well need someone, but that staff person might be different than the previous staff person in what my understanding of the previous liaison is. That person worked almost exclusively for Superior Court. This liaison would be someone who works with Superior Court and the District Court. I think that will make that a very busy job."

Jones said he has spoken with Chief District Court Judge David Brantley about how the job would be coordinated.

"I am excited about that," Jones said. "I think it will help us in a lot of ways. But until we get the video system in, I don't think we need right now, that additional staff person."

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of DWI cases in Wayne District Court and the county has received a grant to start a new District Court DWI court session.

Many District Court DWIs convictions are appealed to Superior Court.

"Something I am thinking about starting new soon is during our administrative week, the midway point of the week, start doing DWI cases and bringing a jury in," Jones said. "If we could handle a few cases, if we only handled two a week, that is almost 25 a year that could be handled."

Jones said he had spoken to court clerks and district attorneys and thinks he will be starting that soon.

"Everybody seems interested in that. It is sort of a chain reaction. When District Court is busier then that means ultimately, we are going to be busier, too. That is something that I think will help alleviate some of the DWI cases in Superior Court."

Jones also has started utilizing the renovated Courtroom No. 1 in the old courthouse. Use is limited in order to ensure preservation of the historic courtroom.

"The county is proud of that courtroom, but at the same time we need to use resources," Jones said. "Also, with the new DWI court, it is almost a necessity to use that courtroom."

Another change Jones has initiated is an early start time for court.

"I am trying to start around 9 a.m. Typically, Superior Court starts a little later than that. When I am here it, to me, just makes sense that we can get started early. If we can get started earlier, we can handle more cases and I think it is working. Anytime you make a change it takes a little bit of time to get used to a change and I understand that. I have to consider not only me. I have to consider a lot more people than me. I have to consider the district attorneys. I have to consider the clerks. I have to consider the bailiffs. I have to consider what space is available."