Public defender: Efforts reduce jail population

Published 5:19 pm Thursday, June 6, 2013

The public defender’s office serving Beaufort County contends it’s helping reduce the county jail’s population by expediting cases in the courts.

That statement came during Robert A. Womble’s presentation to the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners’ meeting Monday. His presentation was the result of the board asking him to provide it with information related to caseloads and case dispositions in District Court and Superior Court in the county. Commissioner Hood Richardson has said the county has a problem with the district attorney’s office and the court system not moving criminal cases through the courts in a timely manner. He’s blamed District Attorney Seth Edwards for keeping some criminal suspects in jail far longer than they need to be incarcerated.

From Feb. 1 to May 30, according to Womble, the average population at the jail dropped from 98 inmates to 68 inmates, about a 30-percent decline. Womble attributes a significant amount of that drop to the public defender’s office expediting criminal cases through the courts.

As of Monday, according to data provided by Womble, Beaufort County had 656 court cases awaiting disposition.

Richardson said more criminal cases could be moved through the courts if the law-enforcement community and judicial system did not rely so heavily on the State Bureau of Investigation’s crime laboratory to process evidence. Sometimes that means waits of several months, if not a year or longer, Richardson said.

Richardson said in some cases it would be cheaper and faster for the county to pay a private laboratory to process evidence and use those laboratory results in trials, which could occur sooner. By moving defendants through the court system faster and getting them out of the jail, that would result in the county spending less money to house inmates in the jail. That cost is at least $50 per day per inmate, according to county officials.

Womble noted that many SBI laboratory analysts who become certified while working for the SBI become more marketable when they receive their certifications and move on to work with private laboratories.

“They’re going to work for the commercial labs, and that’s proof that (private) companies are providing these services. This business that we have to wait on the state lab is a bunch of bull,” Richardson said. “We need to take a look at how we can save money by taking some of the money we’re spending in the jail and spending it on laboratory work so we can get these cases moved out. And if that starts piling up on Superior Court judges, then we need to take a look at how we can unpile these Superior Court judges.”

Womble concurred that private laboratories may be used by the criminal-justice system.

The board asked Womble to prepare a monthly report on his office’s caseload and disposition of cases to help it track how cases are moving through the court system.

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

email author More by Mike