March 04, 2010
|Inmate Population Falls As Jail Rises|
A 2005 study of Guilford County's jail situation predicted a highly escalating jail population for the county's jails in the years following the study and, based largely on that prediction, the report also found it was an absolute necessity for Guilford County to build a new jail – something that's now happening in downtown Greensboro after voters approved a May 2008 jail bond referendum.
The jail study, known as the Kimme report, also stated that alternative measures could not significantly help address the county's jail overcrowding problem.
The Guilford County jail population numbers for 2009 have been tabulated and, last year, the average daily population of the Guilford County jails was 845 –lower than the average daily population in 2005, when the average population of the jails was 863.
After the Kimme report came out in 2005, Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Skip Alston was a vocal opponent of building a new jail, which is going to cost about $100 million to construct. Alston and others argued that the jail population could be kept in check by measures such as speeding up the judicial process, hiring more county Pretrial Services workers, implementing electronic house arrest, expanding drug courts and mental health courts and a more frequent use of "rocket dockets" – when the courts set aside a day or two and make a commitment to focus on cases that have been lingering for a long time.
Guilford County has two jails – one in Greensboro and one in High Point. The county also has a prison farm near Gibsonville, however that is distinct from the jail system, since the prison only holds convicted prisoners while the jails are for those awaiting trial. The Guilford County Prison Farm is rarely if ever overcrowded and the prisoners there are not considered part of the county jail system.
While the county's two jails combined have a rated capacity of 672 inmates and remain overcrowded, the nightmare scenarios predicted in the Kimme report haven't come to pass. The report predicted a rise in the jail system's population every year and predicted an average daily population of around 1,000 inmates by 2010. However, in no year since 2005 has the jail population been higher than it was in 2005.
Before county voters approved money for the new jail, there was a move by jail opponents to implement jail population reduction programs, and there were a number of changes made in the county's practices with regard to handling inmates and the operation of the judicial system.
Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said he thinks the decline in the county's jail population over the last four years may be due to a combination of those measures.
"A lot of it has to do with the continuing plans of working with judges and DAs [district attorneys]," Barnes said.
Barnes said another factor is that the State of North Carolina has been better about taking inmates off the county's hands in a more timely manner once those inmates have been convicted. At times in the past, Guilford County jail overcrowding has been exacerbated by the refusal of the state to take inmates due to an overcrowded state prison system. The state is supposed to take inmates off the county's hands as soon as an inmate has been tried and convicted. Barnes once threatened to take convicted inmates down to Raleigh and handcuff them to a fence outside the state capital building if the state prison system didn't take the prisoners.
Guilford County District Attorney Doug Henderson, who last month filed to run for another term as district attorney, said his office hasn't been doing anything too out of the ordinary, but he said he and his assistant district attorneys are now more focused on the cases of those who are awaiting trial in jail as opposed to those who are not.
"We've been putting an emphasis on jail cases," Henderson said.
The Guilford County District Attorney's Office, in conjunction with the rest of the court system, has also held some very successful rocket dockets over the last few years.
One big move the Guilford County Board of Commissioners made in the wake of the Kimme report, largely on the recommendation of Henderson, was to double the size of the county's Pretrial Services' operations by adding six positions to that office.
Pretrial Services workers act as case managers for those who are awaiting trial, and judges are more likely to allow someone to wait for trial out of jail if the accused is being managed by a Pretrial Services worker – who stays in contact with the accused, reminds him or her of upcoming court dates and who drives home the consequences of not showing up for scheduled court appearances.
Judges appear to be using the expanded service liberally.
Wheaton Casey, the director of Pretrial Services for Guilford County, said that before the expansion of her office, Pretrial Services was only able to take on about 150 new cases a year, whereas, now her office is managing around 500 or 600 new cases a year.
"I think it is helping," she said of the expanded role of her department.
She added that other efforts have also no doubt played a role in bringing the jail population down from 2005 levels.
Expanded drug courts and mental health courts also appear to be taking some of the burden off the jail system.
The plan has been to build the new jail in downtown Greensboro, move inmates from the current Greensboro jail into the new jail in about two-and-a-half years when the new jail opens, and then renovate the current jail while it's empty to create additional jail space for future years.
Barnes said the fact that the jail population has fallen rather than risen might mean the county will be able to take its time when it comes to renovating the old jail.
As for the new jail, Barnes said the project is "on schedule," and he said he sees progress every day. Barnes said there's a patio connected to his sheriff's offices and he can walk out onto it and monitor the construction of the new jail.
He added that there had been no glitches so far in that process except, at one point while construction workers were digging up the ground, they hit some unexpected gas lines and there was concern those lines might be active but it turns out they were not.