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Editor’s note: This article is part 4 in the four-part Carolina Public Press investigative reporting series Raising Jails, which examines how and why counties expand or build bigger jails, the costs of those decisions and the impact on the future of those counties. The series is being produced in part through financial support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
In 2014, Kathy Greggs came home to Cumberland County.
She had just been medically discharged from the military when a friend convinced her to start volunteering, she said. She began working with women at risk of homelessness, with survivors of domestic violence and of sexual assault.
Greggs is a survivor of violence herself, on and off the battlefield. Her experiences drive her to do the work she does today, she said.
Through her advocacy, Greggs realized the connection between what she saw in shelters and what she and other advocates call a broken system of mass incarceration.
The connection led her to co-found the Fayetteville Police Accountability Community Taskforce, an organization that pushes local elected officials, from judges to sheriffs to district attorneys, to find better solutions for police accountability and criminal justice oversight.
For seven months, Greggs’ organization was one of a coalition of community groups pushing to change how the courts decide to release people from jail, she said.
“We’re giving more funds to an overcrowded jail, but we’re not getting people out of jail,” Greggs said. “That is the problem.”
Advocates for reform estimate the county spends $62.50 per day per person housed in the jail, for a rough daily cost of $28,000, even during the pandemic. In nonpandemic times, the county’s average jail population is about 200 people higher. Greggs would rather see that money go to shelters for people experiencing homelessness or to domestic violence intervention programs.
In early October, the county’s senior Superior Court judge released a new policy that prohibits the use of bail in low-level misdemeanors and other instances where public safety is not threatened, a move that Greggs and others cheered as a step in the right direction.
Reform like that in Cumberland County is happening across North Carolina, but unevenly. Calls for change are also having an uneven impact on county decisions about spending money on bigger jails.
North Carolina jails people at higher rates than ever before, a decision that has little to do with crime, which has plummeted since the turn of the century.
According to research in 2015 by the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, the decrease in crime is little understood but likely driven by growth in income and an aging population. Harsh policing and incarceration had limited effect on reducing crime rates before 2000, the report found, and none since.
Briefly, during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, counties worked to release people from jails who were not public safety threats. The move showed the possibility for less incarceration, even in nonpandemic times, without causing more crime.
But when COVID-19 fears receded earlier in 2021, court sessions resumed. Many counties returned to more normal decision-making about whom they keep in jail, and populations crept up — and stayed up during the delta surge.
Jails in 18 counties were over capacity in August, according to monthly reports to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Another 24 were more than 80% full, the national standard for when jail operations start to be strained, according to the National Institute of Corrections, a federal program under the Department of Justice.
The United States puts people behind bars at a higher rate than any other country. North Carolina has a lower jail incarceration rate than all other states in the Southeast except Maryland and is about average for the nation, according to the Incarceration Trends tool from the Vera Institute of Justice.
But compared with the rest of the world, North Carolina’s jail incarceration rates alone are higher than the total incarceration rates for most other countries.
The rate, calculated as the number of people in county jails per 100,000 population, is higher than the total incarceration rates for the United Kingdom or France, and roughly twice that of Canada or Belgium, according to the State of Incarceration report from the Prison Policy Initiative.
Not everyone in the state shares this burden equally.
North Carolina jails Black residents at more than three times the rate of white residents, and Native Americans at more than twice the rate of whites, according to federal data organized by the Vera Institute of Justice.
The N.C. Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, which Gov. Roy Cooper established in response to protests over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020, found that the “statistics that illustrate racial inequity in criminal justice are staggering.”
“North Carolina’s criminal justice system is afflicted with long-standing systemic racism,” the report reads. “It is pervasive and wrong and must be remedied.”
Being jailed can be traumatizing. Kristie Puckett-Williams, a criminal justice reform lobbyist for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she had to navigate the personal impacts of poverty and violence on her own when she was incarcerated.
Rather than helping her, Puckett-Williams said, the point of jailing her “was to silence and disappear me from my community” and called jails “a warehouse of issues we don’t want to deal with.”
The way people are treated in jails changes how they think about themselves for years to come, Puckett-Williams said. She was pregnant during one stint in jail and was astonished by how little medical treatment or basic consideration she received from jail staff, she said.
“They didn’t care,” Puckett-Williams said. “And I never forgot that.”
The lack of treatment can be especially detrimental to particular populations. Most of the more than 16,000 people held in jail on any given day are held pretrial, and many have disabilities, according to Disability Rights North Carolina, a nonprofit that advocates for the well-being of people with disabilities and is granted special access privileges by federal law. A 2020 report by the organization said high rates of suicides were the result of poor conditions.
“They are endangered by unsafe conditions and lack of health care for mental health disabilities and substance use disorders,” according to the organization’s 2020 report on suicide in North Carolina jails. “Statistically, upon entering the jail, a person becomes twenty-five times more likely to die by suicide.”
The cost analysis of jail reforms
A financial cost accompanies the human cost of jail incarceration. In the last 20 years, North Carolina counties spent roughly $1.4 billion building and maintaining jails, according to data from the state Treasurer’s Office.
They still owe $455 million in construction debt, with more jails to come. Counties have likely spent 10 times that amount to staff and run the jails, according to Patrice Roesler, a professor at the UNC School of Government, who used the 1-to-10 ratio commonly mentioned by jail researchers and administrators.
In North Carolina, as across the country, counties are seeing a divergence in their local justice systems in recent years. A few counties, mostly urban or suburban, are experimenting with reforms and keeping more people out of jails, while the majority of counties, mostly rural, are packing more of their people into jails.
One reform above all else that would help North Carolina empty its jails is right-sizing the criminal code, according to Jessica Smith, professor of public law and government at UNC’s School of Government and director of the school’s Criminal Justice Innovation Lab.
“If you read the newspaper or watch the nightly news, one would think that the criminal court system is filled with violent assaults and murders and rapes,” Smith said. “But it’s just not so.”
The vast majority of charges are for misdemeanors, Smith said, and the vast majority of those are nonviolent offenses for which jail time is an unlikely sentence. Nonetheless, alleged offenders are held before trial on these minor charges. They are also jailed if they miss a court date.
Often, “many misdemeanor defendants remain in jail for periods exceeding the sentence they could receive if convicted, and many plead guilty just so that they can be released,” according to a report prepared for the N.C. Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice.
Instead of pursuing criminal action for minor misdemeanors, the state could reclassify them as fine-only infractions, not as crimes. The change would save the state a lot of money without hurting public safety, Smith wrote in a 2015 briefing on criminal code recodification.
State legislators have shown an appetite for this line of thinking.
The legislature passed a major omnibus criminal justice reform bill earlier this year on a near-unanimous vote. It included a provision to create a legislative working group to study and suggest changes to the state’s criminal code.
“Taking a close look at that issue is probably the single biggest way that you’re going to impact the criminal justice net and the downstream consequences, including incarceration in the jail,” Smith said.
Challenging the idea of freedom, at a price
In addition to pretrial holds and jailing for failures to appear in court, some people are kept in jail for an inability to pay their bonds.
When law enforcement arrests people, officers bring each suspect in front of a magistrate. The magistrate looks at the charges, uses bond guidelines and decides what conditions need to be met for that person to get out of jail.
Despite the preference in North Carolina law to release people pretrial without requiring some form of payment, the law also gives judicial officials broad discretion to decide what conditions they set.
The result is that 95% of people in jail across North Carolina are held on monetary bonds. An inability to pay has significant downstream effects on public safety, case outcomes and costs to taxpayers, and harms the person who can’t afford bail, Smith said.
“If I’m a single mom and I get picked up for stealing $10 worth of gas because I don’t have money to pay for gas at the end of the month, and I end up in jail and I can’t pay my $200 bond, my kids are going in social services care,” Smith said.
“Well, that’s the cost to the county right there. And I may lose my job if I can’t get to my next shift at the restaurant or wherever I work. So, now I’m on public assistance. So, that’s another cost to the county.”
The costs for unnecessary detention add up, Smith said. People held pretrial for low-level offenses are more likely to commit felonies and misdemeanors when they are released, Smith said, and other data shows people held pretrial are more likely to be convicted.
Bail reform and pretrial release have something for everybody, Smith said.
For people interested in racial justice, it limits the number of Black and poor people held in jail. For people interested in fiscally responsible government, bail reform and strategic pretrial release save taxpayer money from reduced jail costs and the indirect consequences of incarceration.
A growing number of counties are changing their bail policies. But almost all of them are in major metropolitan areas.
Mecklenburg was the first county in the state to implement widespread reform in 2014. The county avoided building a new jail and decreased its jail population by about half, with studies showing the county saved money and had no adverse effects on public safety.
Haywood and Jackson, smaller and more rural counties, are part of a pilot program run in partnership with Smith’s program at UNC. Though the data differs for each project, each shows the counties holding fewer people in jail.
Local judicial officials do not need the state to change any laws to set lower bonds or create conditions that would release more people on their own.
Instead, using public safety assessments, they can release people who are not a danger to others and make sure people are not in jail simply because they cannot pay a money bond, as Mecklenburg has.
This approach requires coordination across judges, magistrates, district attorneys and sheriffs, according to Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather III.
“Everyone’s got their own interests that they bring to the table within a judicial system …,” Merriweather said. “It takes everyone sort of understanding that they work in an interdependent system.”
Bail reform has become a national rallying cry and a focal point for criminal justice reforms, both for its disproportionate impact on Black people and the reality that many people are in jail on low-level offenses simply because they cannot pay their way to freedom.
Southerners on New Ground, a civil rights advocacy organization based in Atlanta, coordinates a Southern arm of a national bail fund to help Black mothers get out of jail. Within the state, the N.C. Community Bail Fund of Durham and the Orange Bail Bond Justice Project help people afford their release from jail.
But bail reform is one part of a complex criminal legal system where even seemingly small changes can have significant impacts on incarceration.
Smith, along with the UNC School of Government and the Pew Charitable Trusts, launched a new project in July to study when and why people do not appear for their court dates, and what counties can do to keep people out of jail and prevent the court system from getting gummed up.
Their efforts will add to the work already being done in places like Haywood County, which just approved funding for a new position to help people make their court dates. County judges issued 2,270 failure-to-appear charges during the 2021 fiscal year.
Orange County uses a system that texts people reminders for their court dates and gives people an opportunity to explain why they missed their court date without punishment, providing it’s a first-time issue.
“These are not, you know, cases that the DAs enjoyed prosecuting, that our sheriff’s thought should be held for public safety reasons,” said Caitlin Fenhagen, director of Orange County’s Criminal Justice Resource Department.
A network of possible reforms
Legal researchers like Smith, advocates for racial justice and supporters of better social services coalesce around criminal justice reform.
Organizers in Haywood County, for example, oppose efforts to expand the jail, pushing for the county instead to invest the more than $20 million a jail would cost in getting more counselors in schools or creating affordable housing in the growing county.
The N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition is working with 10 law enforcement agencies to connect people to drug treatment programs rather than arresting them, according to Melissia Larson, the coalition’s Law Enforcement Programs Manager.
Orange and Surry counties have their own arrest diversion programs funded through outside sources. Orange dedicates the county’s share of Alcohol Beverage Control tax dollars to run its Criminal Justice Resource Department, while Surry uses grants and the coming opioid settlement money to fund its Substance Abuse Recovery Department.
Smith works with four counties to pilot citation-and-release policies to keep people with low-level charges out of jails.
Changing the way counties and the state think about criminal justice and what is best for a community’s well-being is a difficult issue, Smith said. To a very large extent, the number of people in a county jail is a choice, one with both human and financial costs.
“What it comes down to is a community deciding how it wants to spend its limited resources,” she said.