Cover Story: Fewer inmates - jail not needed

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Jail break.  A plan for a larger lockup in Mecklenburg County could be crumbling right before our eyes.

Because fewer people are going to jail.  Fewer people are locked up in Mecklenburg County.

In fact, the number of inmates in the county jail has dropped so much that plans for a larger detention center are being reconsidered.

So, what's up with these lower inmate populations?  Are people really that much better behaved than they were just a few years ago?

The skeptic out there might say they must be turning criminals out on the street.

But what's going on is a trend that's taking shape across the country.  And call it a smarter way to manage crime locally.

It was just two years ago amid much fanfare the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office opened the Jail Annex, a facility with 350 beds.

It was a stop-gap measure to relieve overcrowding at Jail North (next door) and Jail Central in uptown.  Then inmates were sleeping on the floor and it looked like the county was going to drown in crime.

"It's just fallen into place.."

But it wasn't long after that Mecklenburg sheriff Chipp Bailey told us that the inmate population which had been rising for years started declining, peaking at nearly 2,900 in August 2007.

Now it's down to fewer than 2,000 inmates a day.  And the Jail Annex has been mothballed.

"For us I think it's worked out very well," Bailey said.

So it doesn't make sense he says moving forward with plans to build a 1,700-bed jail in north Charlotte next to Jail Central and having the county borrow $240 million to build it.

Why the drop in inmates?

The criminal justice system has gotten creative with dealing with crime.

  • In court, bails have been set higher for the worst offenders making sure they stay behind bars rather than low-risk defendants.
  • Police expanded the use of electronic monitoring freeing up jail beds.
  • And the time spent waiting to go to court has been reduced.  An inmate who receives an active prison sentence becomes part of the state prison system.

"There is a reduction across the country."

Dr. Vivian Lord, former chair of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at UNC Charlotte, says reforms at the local level have coincided with a drop in crime across the country.

Could we see an explosion where we'd need the jail space?  Not unless laws are re-written, she says.

"We're not going to see an explosion of crime unless somehow or another there's some policy that comes a long and we're suddenly going to make a policy that everybody that breaks curfew we're going to put in jail," says Lord.

Adds Sheriff Bailey, "We're not going to have the explosive growth.. I think we'll have an incremental growth and someday they'll need to plan for a new jail.. I don't see it in the next 4,5, 6 years."

Right now the Sheriff's Office has enough room for 2,700 inmates.  It was housing fewer than 2,000 inmates last week.

At their meeting Tuesday night county commissioners are formally shelving plans to expand the county jail facilities, freeing up hundreds of millions of dollars in borrowing.

What will be done with the Jail Annex in north Charlotte now that it's mothballed?

It's going to be turned into a temporary Arrest Processing Center while the current center in uptown is being renovated.  That's expected to take about a year.

The center will be in use during next year's Democratic National Convention - which officials say will help with security.  Trouble-makers that are arrested and released will be 10 miles from Center City.

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