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Covering the rural jail crisis

Many rural county jail populations are growing at a higher rate than urban county jails or even state prisons, according to research done by the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice.

The average daily jail population in the U.S. is 615,000, but there are about 10.6 million jail admissions each year. If you suffer from mental illness, you’re nine times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized. If you are a person of color, you are more likely to have a higher bond set for your release and if you’re poor, you are more likely to be detained pretrial simply because you can’t afford a cash bond. 

These are just a few of the staggering statistics about the mass incarceration problem in the United States. 

I thought I had a fairly good grasp on the issues facing our criminal justice system when I accepted a journalism fellowship this summer that delved into the rural jail crisis. 

I know that a lack of funding for mental health services and addiction treatment, mixed with the opioid epidemic, are draining local resources. I know law enforcement and the courts are struggling to keep up with the increasing demand of services. I know our county jails stay close to capacity and that many of the people inside those jails should probably be in some kind of treatment facility instead. 

A lack of resources for people with behavioral health issues is a major contributor to the exploding jail populations, but the fix is more complicated than I could have imagined. What I didn’t know was that those factors are just the tip of the iceberg when looking at the disparities within our criminal justice system that have led to this rural jail crisis — and we’re all paying the price. 

The yearlong reporting fellowship kicked off last week with a two-day conference held at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. The 28 rural journalists selected from across the country were inundated with information from expert speakers, data and case studies that will help us as we embark on investigative projects in our own communities. 

We heard from sheriffs, district attorneys, judges, researchers, criminal justice advocacy groups, award-winning journalists, defenders, prosecutors, state representatives, county commissioners and other stakeholders who have their finger on the pulse of the system. It was an eye-opening and overwhelming experience to say the least.

My main takeaway from the conference is that everything within our system needs to be re-evaluated to reduce local jail populations and provide speedy and fair due process for Americans — our outdated laws, policing practices, bail assessments, pretrial services (or lack there of) and sentencing practices.

If we want to stop building jails at a higher rate than schools, we’re going to have to change the way we look at the criminal justice system and the people in it. We have to start asking why we do things a certain way and “because we’ve always done it that way” is no longer an acceptable option. 

Yes, sometimes law enforcement, lawyers and judges are bound by the laws on the books. Those laws can be hard to change at the state level without major bipartisan support, but another take away from the conference was that our sheriffs, district attorneys and judges have more power to make minor changes that could result in major improvements. 

It’s going to take education, understanding and cooperation to make it happen — but that’s nothing we aren’t accustomed to here in Western North Carolina. 

 

Changing attitudes

One of the journalism fellows — Whitney from Mississippi — had the guts to ask the question we were all thinking about during the conference. 

“How do we get our readers to care about all this?”

She was absolutely right. There’s no doubt to a room of reporters why justice for all matters, but getting our communities to understand and care about people we’ve labeled as criminals is no easy feat. Unless you have unexpectedly found yourself entangled in the justice system or had a family member go through it, it’s hard for people to empathize with people who are incarcerated. 

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The best answer given to Whitney and the rest of us was to show our readers who exactly are in the local jails because often times it’s not the stereotypical hardened criminals we have in our minds. 

We’re not talking about the population of a state prison where people are serving time for a crime for which they were convicted. Most of the local jail population is made up of people serving sentences of under a year or people who are awaiting trial (meaning they are still presumed innocent and should be treated as such). 

Sure, there are people in jail pretrial who need to be there because they pose a public safety risk to the community, but there are also people who have been accused of minor offenses but can’t afford to post cash bail. That $1,000 bail could be keeping a mother from seeing her children before her trial or it could mean a father loses his job and his ability to provide for his family.

There are also people who committed a crime because they are not managing their mental health disorder correctly or perhaps they’re self-medicating deeper trauma with drugs and alcohol. These people’s needs would be better addressed within the health care system — not the criminal justice system. 

If an examination of the jail population still doesn’t pique your interest, how about the bottom line argument? Unless the underlying problems in the system can be addressed, we can expect to build larger jails, employ more police and prosecutors and pay more taxes to be able to afford it. During a time when county commissioners are already making hard choices when it comes to funding schools and new infrastructure, building a new jail every 10 to 20 years is unrealistic and unsustainable. Instead of looking for a larger place to house the growing jail populations, leaders need to be looking at how to decrease the existing population. 

Our community also needs to be more aware of the cost associated with housing inmates and weigh that against the public safety risk. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said he set a policy in his office that his prosecutors make a point in court to say out loud the cost associated with putting someone in jail for a certain amount of time. He admitted it’s been a controversial practice not used by many DAs, but one he plans to continue as it can make a difference in sentencing practices. 

 

Changing practices

Changing processes and procedures that have been in place for decades is a daunting task. It will take a concerted effort between agencies that are typically fragmented from each other. 

County officials at the conference gave plenty of insights and examples of what they’ve done to decrease their jail populations and their budgets. WNC counties might not have all the problems these other counties are experiencing and maybe not all the solutions would work for our region, but it’s certainly worth evaluating.

My hope is that this criminal justice project will open the lines of communication between agencies and get the community thinking outside the box when it comes to incarceration. As The Smoky Mountain News begins to ask questions about how our criminal justice system operates, I hope we can use the resources provided to us through this fellowship to identify solutions that would work in Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. 

Let’s look at our arrest practices — what offenses can be settled with a civil citation versus a jail booking and court appearance? 

Let’s look at our bail practices — are we using a modern tool for assessing whether someone is a public safety risk? Are we abusing cash bond practices that only keep poor people in jail for months awaiting trial? Are we utilizing pretrial programs that help rehabilitate people while being incarcerated? 

Let’s look at our court practices — are we giving judges the ability to use their discretion as much as possible or leaning too much on mandatory sentencing laws? Are we diverting people into treatment when possible instead of incarceration?

Some of the jail reduction strategies other counties have started implementing have already started to pay off. Lucas County, Ohio, has been able to reduce its jail population by nearly 25 percent in the last two years with the help of a grant from the McArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. Buncombe County also received a small grant from the same program to begin implementing changes. 

 

The Bright Side

The conference painted a grim picture of our criminal justice system, but I still walked away with optimism knowing that there are solutions to the challenges our local law enforcement and court system face.

Many of the speakers painted a picture of fragmented agencies and turf wars between police departments and sheriff’s offices in their jurisdictions. Maybe I’m being naïve, but that’s something I haven’t seen too much of in WNC. What I do see is our DA and police chief holding community forums to educate people about the system and our law enforcement, community organizations and churches working together to combat the opioid epidemic plaguing our communities and sheriffs who don’t want to see the same person again and again in their jail. 

Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher has led the charge on providing rehabilitation services for people leaving his jail. A part of this ongoing project will look at the impact the Haywood Pathways Center has had on reducing recidivism in the jail and getting people the mental health and addiction treatment they need to keep them out of the criminal justice system. 

Haywood County agencies are also working on implementing a LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program, a program that would divert qualified people into treatment instead of jail for certain offenses. 

The program was discussed at length at the conference in NYC — it was started in Seattle and now other agencies across the country are using it. The fact that Haywood and other western counties are already implementing such a progressive program shows we’re ahead of the curve compared to other rural counties. It also shows that our leaders have a better understanding of the challenges than others and aren’t afraid to shine a light on the deficiencies and look for better solutions. 

I genuinely look forward to working with all the key players in the next year as I try to learn all I can about our criminal justice system and discuss ways we can do our part to reduce mass incarceration in this country while keeping communities safe. 

 

What’s to come?

It’s hard to know where to start when tackling the tangled web that is the criminal justice system. Before exploring the problems with the system and possible solutions, our readers need to understand how the system works from arrest to release and the many steps in between. 

Secondly, my goal is to tour all the jails in our four-county coverage area to give readers a sense of the differences in their operations, populations and the challenges sheriffs and jailers face on a daily basis. 

We’ll also examine the bail bondsmen industry, cash bond practices in our region and the bail bond laws governing our state as well as alternatives to using cash bonds. 

We’ll analyze incarceration data from our region compiled by the Vera Institute and other advocacy organizations and see how we compare nationally. 

While this reporting fellowship is a yearlong project with John Jay College, I’m not placing a particular timeline on this topic. This will be rolling investigation that I want our readers to engage with as it moves forward. I want to hear your thoughts, comments and suggestions on our criminal justice system and the rural jail crisis. Reach me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. 

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