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Crime & Justice

Report Questions NC Jail Program To Stop Crowded Prisons

A program created by North Carolina legislators to prevent overcrowding in state prisons has paid county jail operators millions of dollars to house certain offenders even as those facilities exceed capacity, according to a report released Monday.

Disability Rights North Carolina, the report’s author, said 50 counties received $4.2 million combined to house and transport people sentenced for misdemeanors during months between 2018 and 2020 when their jails were above 100% capacity.

Fourteen people died in 2018 and 2019 in overcrowded jails that were participating in what’s known as the Statewide Misdemeanant Confinement Program, the report said.

“The conditions we found are extremely dangerous for all people in these overcrowded jails, staff and those housed in them, and we are especially concerned for the safety and well-being of people with disabilities in these jails,” group attorney Luke Woollard said in a news release.

Jails have long have held people convicted of misdemeanors serving 90 days or less. State lawmakers passed a 2011 law that allowed jails, which are run by local sheriffs, to hold people sentenced to between 91 to 180 days for misdemeanors, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported. Jails received $40 per inmate per day. Sheriffs can opt out of the program.

The program, which is managed by the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, was later expanded to include all people convicted of misdemeanors incarcerated more than 90 days. The association was paid $1 million in reimbursements during the 2019-20 fiscal year to administer the program.

Eddie Caldwell, the association’s executive vice president, told The News & Observer he couldn’t comment on the report because he had yet to receive a copy Monday.

Woollard and Susan Pollitt, another Disability Rights NC attorney, said lawmakers should change the law so that jails can’t take these misdemeanor offenders when they reach 80% capacity. Lawmakers also should improve regulations so jails correct safety problems and supervision issues more quickly, the lawyers said.

“This is a fixable problem,” Woollard said.

State regulators did change jail inspection rules in 2020 to require jails to move people out when their capacities are exceeded.

Disability Rights NC is the federally designated legal advocacy agency for the state. It keeps close tabs on jails because they have higher numbers of inmates often have physical or mental health issues.

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