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Wednesday, 03 August 2011 12:40

State prisons, county jails play musical chairs with inmates

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Counties with jail beds to spare will soon be able to make a little cash housing state prison inmates.

Under a new program introduced by the N.C. General Assembly earlier this year, minor criminals with short sentences won’t be housed in state prisons anymore. The new measure will mean more heads in local jails and, for some counties, a little more money in local funds, too.

Currently, county jails hold inmates charged with a crime and awaiting trial. Once sentenced, they are shipped off to state prison, unless their sentence is less than 90 days, in which case they serve the short time in the jail.

But starting next year, county jails could end up housing inmates with sentences up to 180 days who would have otherwise ended up in the state system. It will only apply to prisoners convicted of misdemeanors; felons will still go into the state system.

Essentially, it’s a logistical move, said Eddie Caldwell, vice president and general counsel for the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association. They’re the group that’s going to manage the project.

“The legislature believes that there is available capacity in the county jails, but we’ve never had a mechanism to match up the heads with the beds that are available,” said Caldwell.

The program is completely voluntary. Local sheriffs don’t have to take on the prisoners if they don’t want to.

But for those who do have extra room, they’ll get paid to house these prisoners that would have otherwise ended up in the state’s prisons. How much counties would get is not yet known, according to Keith Acree, public affairs director for the department of corrections.

“The payment structure has yet to be determined, whether it’s a flat rate or something else,” said Acree. But, he said, what is certain is that on January 1, the department of corrections will get out of the business of housing misdemeanor criminals.

It’s welcome news for some counties that have new or unfilled jails where empty beds are eating up money.

“If you’ve got a county that has beds sitting vacant, there’s a certain amount of cost built into that bed anyway, so the cost putting an inmate in there is incremental,” said Caldwell. “We think that those sheriffs who have vacant beds would be glad.”

Especially if it means they can make a little money to cover their jail overhead.

Originally, state lawmakers wanted to save money by dumping the misdemeanor criminals on counties without compensating them, an idea bandied about for several years, said Caldwell. Several other states already do it.

But clearly the state’s sheriffs didn’t like the idea unless it came with money to cover the inmates room and board.

In the current scenario, the state is still projected to save a bit of money. They’re closing four small, minimum-security prisons, including the Haywood Correctional Facility, which will cut some costs.

And the state will increase court costs starting this month to cover the cost of housing prisoners.

Statewide, the changes should affect between 5,000 and 6,000 inmates, said Caldwell. It’s hard to really pin down an exact annual number of those that could land in county jails — those with sentences between 90 and 180 days with misdemeanor crimes.

On one day in March when he took a tally, there were 1,700 inmates who fit the bill, and he figures that’s about average.

In Haywood County, there were 14 inmates convicted in 2010 who match the criteria. Jackson County had four, Macon County had eight and Swain County only two for that year.

So, on the surface, it doesn’t seem such a big deal for smaller, rural counties.

But in Wake County, the state’s most populous, there were 296 convictions in 2010 that would have to be housed locally somewhere under the new rules. And portioning those out could be a boon to empty jails.

Eventually, Caldwell sees this program giving counties an incentive to build bigger jails than they may need, theoretically paid for by prisoners other places didn’t want.

Currently, the N.C. Sheriff’s Association is figuring out how many beds there are in facilities around the state, then contracts will be signed before the program goes into effect at the beginning of next year.

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