04/24/11 — Jail number dropping

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Jail number dropping

By Gary Popp
Published in News on April 24, 2011 1:50 AM

The inmate population at Wayne County Detention Center recently dropped to 180 inmates, a remarkable low point, county officials say, since the population climbed to 250 in early February.

Superior Court Judge Arnold Jones said the population decrease is the result of a concerted effort.

"We have been working hard to get that number down," Jones said. "From a combination of sources, not just what I am doing, but what the district attorneys are doing, what defense attorneys are doing and the new equipment we are using."

The most recent high of the inmate population in the last three years was in October 2010 when the jail held 261 inmates, 30 percent more than the jail's capacity of 200 inmates.

An official from the Wayne County Jail said the inmate count is taken at the end of the day, adding that in the course of the day, the inmate population could swell to 280 inmates.

When the jail population is down, so, too, are county costs, Jones said.

"We may go back over 200 (inmates), but we are working to keep those numbers down because it is saving the taxpayers a lot of money by not having these people sit in jail," Jones said.

The reduced population affects present and future costs to taxpayers.

"As long as our numbers can be in the range we are in now, we are able to avoid having to spend $60 million to $80 million as a county on a new jail," Jones said. "That is why we are all trying to do what we are doing now."

One of the many people working to control the jail population is court liaison Jennifer Heath.

The part-time position of court liaison was added to the county staff in December 2010 to help expedite cases through the courts.

"The biggest thing is that everybody is trying to work together and move the court proceedings along," Ms. Heath said.

Part of her job is working with probation violation defendants.

Ms. Heath explained that previously probation violation defendants' cases would be ready to start, but the defendants, at times, would not have had their necessary first appearances. This disorganization slowed court processes.

With Ms. Heath in place, the defendants are getting more attention prior to their court dates.

"My job is to look at those cases to make sure the first appearances take place before the court date comes," she said. "Judge Jones has been really good about doing first appearances for people in jail on probation violations."

Jones said he is working closely with Ms. Heath.

"She is doing a great job identifying people who need to be brought to court quicker," he said.

Jones added that while the recent decline in jail numbers are satisfactory, he can't guarantee the numbers won't increase in the future.

"I feel comfortable and very satisfied at this point that we are doing (today) everything we can do as humanly possible to keep them as low as they can go." Jones said. "I am hopeful and optimistic that, with the tools we have in place and the efforts that are being made, we are working to do all we can to keep the numbers as low as they can be."

Jones said he has organized quarterly meetings with court officials to help get them working together on shared goals.

"The cases are being handled, in my opinion, quicker than they were. That is a multifaceted thing," Jones said. "You have got to have the district attorneys working the cases and the defense attorneys working the cases. I see that going on, so I am very complementary of what I am seeing on both sides of the aisle. I hope it continues."

Jones added that he is also appreciative of the quality of work taking place at the Day Reporting Center and in the office of County Manager Lee Smith.

District Attorney Branny Vickory said his office is also putting more emphasis on the jail.

"We are pushing as hard as we can. A restructuring in my office has added people working on case screenings," Vickory said. "There are a lot of good things happening all at once."

Vickory also referred to the cooperative effort taking place.

The county's recent success of decreasing the jail population could be washed away by lawmakers in Raleigh.

Members of the state's General Assembly might soon pass legislation that would put an influx of inmates behind the bars of the Wayne County Jail.

According to the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, the Joint Appropriations Commit-tee on Justice and Public Safety is considering a plan that would move misdemeanants currently housed in state prisons to county jails.

Officials estimated that it would cost Wayne County $679,663 annually if the inmates were transferred to the Wayne County Jail.

"I hope that doesn't pass," Jones said. "If we have to start housing those inmates, our numbers will be affected. I do not know what the long term effect will be if that is put in place, other than I do know that it will make our numbers go up."

Jones said if the state law is changed, it will be a hurdle for Wayne County, but he will have no choice but to act accordingly.

"I am not going to base my decisions as a judge on purely economic factors. I am going to do what I think, as a judge, is fair and in the best interest of everyone involved, including the citizens of this county," Jones said.

He said he will have to wait to see what the General Assembly decides, but for now he is appreciative of the quality of work provided by the individuals around him.

"The thing I am most thankful for is we have some hard-working folks up here who want to get things accomplished, and that is what is making this, at this time, work as well as it is working," Jones said.