Jail assessment suggests systemic changes

Published 3:13 am Saturday, July 16, 2016

A recently released National Institute of Correction assessment of the Beaufort County Detention Center reports there are problems — but not only with the jail.

For the last decade, the detention center has been a source of contention: a plan to build a new jail, by a majority vote of county commissioners, was ultimately abandoned after the 2014 election, due to public opposition and a shift in the board’s makeup.

“This was the one piece, whether you were for, against or neutral — everyone wanted an outside source to come in,” Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Charlie Rose said about the study.

Earlier this year, Beaufort County Sheriff Ernie Coleman requested a Jail and Justice System Assessment from NIC, an outside source that could objectively study the jail itself, as well as the source of its overcrowding. The reason: “a need to address a fluctuating inmate population in the Beaufort County Detention Center, lack of appropriate types of housing for inmates — especially females and more violent and special needs inmates — and the need for strategies to educate the community to gain their support in addressing gaps in service and for potential funding to address these issues,” the report states. The report was released June 3. Since, stakeholders in the process have been absorbing its implications, according to Rose.

“I think everyone involved, whether a little bit involved or a lot involved, learned something about our system,” Rose said. “Everybody involved saw, as we were going through the process, that this is just the beginning.”

Over three days in May, NIC representatives toured the jail, interviewing both detention officers and inmates. They also studied the justice system surrounding it and how it impacts the jail’s population. The facility itself is only part of a larger, more encompassing problem, according to the report.

“The justice system plan of what we’re arresting for, how we’re housing pre-trial, how the cases are moving through the system, how they are being adjudicated — through the whole process, we’re running into bumps that we have to address,” Rose said.

On the average day, the jail population is approximately 60 people, far lower than in years past. There is an ebb and flow of inmates, including those there for only a few days or hours. The long-term population, however, represents 25 to 33 percent of inmates at any given time. Some are charged with a major crime and have a resultant higher bond precluding release; most of the others have addiction and/or mental health issues.

“The vast majority of those are in the jail under relatively minor offenses,” Rose said. “Sometimes these people sit in jail longer than how long they can be sentenced for while waiting for their day in court.”

Rose said prosecutors with the District Attorney’s office and attorneys with the public defenders’ office work hard to keep track of those cases, expediting them in court when necessary, but that does not address a larger problem — a lack of programs and facilities in Beaufort County to treat drug addiction and mental health issues.

“There’s more problems than resources we can point them to,” Rose said. “Most of these people who are having these issues are living in poverty, so they can only rely on what (programs) the government can provide.”

In the Beaufort County Detention Center, there is no treatment for mental health issues. Rose said the only time a mental health evaluation is performed at the jail is when an inmate accused of a major crime is evaluated prior to his trial. While East Carolina Behavioral Health, which operates out of Vidant Beaufort Hospital, has been nationally commended for its programs, the facility is limited in space and cannot accommodate those with violent tendencies, according to Rose. Trillium, a state program addressing mental health issues, is well-funded, but like most state programs, the majority of its efforts are focused on higher populated areas in the central part of the state.

Rose said that over the past several years, judges, magistrates and the sheriff’s office have worked to keep the jail population down in several ways: issuing lower bonds and paying to house inmates in other facilities, some in safekeeping at Department of Corrections prisons, others housed at surroundings counties’ jails. But lower bonds have led to a different problem: 22 percent of arrests made by sheriff’s office deputies are of people who have failed to appear in court, according to Rose.

“That’s a lot of time and effort spent arresting people who have already been arrested and charged,” Rose said. “We have too many people that fail to appear in court. … If magistrates and judges are having to make their bonds based on the population in the jail, it does not ensure that they’re going to appear and violent criminals are not going to commit more violent crimes while awaiting trial.”

On the average day, the jail population is not an issue, but it becomes an issue 12 to 14 weeks a year when multiple courts are session, Rose said. There is a spike in inmates: those who have been sentenced in court but have yet to be transported to the facility where they will be serving the sentences; those who are brought in for court appearances from out-of-county facilities where they are being housed; added to a long-term population and the daily influx of inmates.

“Those are the days and weeks when the population goes up into the mid-90s and low hundreds,” Rose said. “That’s just us doing what we’re mandated to do by state statute.”

A separate issue is housing within the jail, according to Rose. The lack of space leads to commingling of inmates who would be separated in other facilities, mainly violent and non-violent criminals. Since inmates are housed in areas based on current charges, someone with past charges of violent crimes, but is currently charged with failure to pay child support, will be housed in the same block as those incarcerated on misdemeanor charges, Rose said.

“Whether the person is here for murder or for a traffic offense, they receive the same exact treatment and supervision,” he said.

“There’s many different groups that are part of the system and everyone has a separate job that they have to do. Everyone can be doing their job effectively, and we’re still going to have problems,” Rose said. “Right now, we don’t have the ability to change with the times. We’re stuck with what we have because of the facility and expectations.”

Just as the Jail and Justice System report has no hard solutions, simply suggestions, Rose said there is no easy fix for the problems of the jail and the system surrounding it. Changing the system, such as establishing more mental health and addiction programs or decriminalizing lower level drug offenses, would take years, as well as a substantial investment and/or changing state law.

As suggested by the jail assessment report, the next steps include putting together a criminal justice coordinating council of key stakeholders, and other stakeholders such as human services and education, to discuss the issues; continuing development of community supervision through probation and pre-trial programming; and key officials continuing discussion about whether a new jail, or a repurposing of the current jail, is needed.

“As a community, we need to have an understanding of what our jail needs to look like. The days of just locking people in jail and keeping them there are over,” Rose said. “For what we’re running, the facility is not enough. We’ve got to change the system or change the facility.”