Fewer people in NC jails during COVID-19 – but those already behind bars are staying longer, study finds

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Fewer people in North Carolina were in jails awaiting trial as the pandemic dragged into the fall, but the ones who remained behind bars stayed there longer on average, a study found.

With people living in close proximity making social distancing a challenge and high levels of churn in jails, correctional facilities have long been considered potential hot spots for COVID-19 spread.

The Public Safety Lab at New York University has been collecting data from about 1,000 jails across the country — including 40 of the nearly 100 across North Carolina — to examine changes in bookings, releases and rebookings amid COVID-19.

The study found the populations in the sampled facilities in North Carolina dropped from just under 2,800 in early March to about 1,800 two months later. It rose to about 2,300 in November before dipping to about 2,100 now.

But as the pandemic went on, those who remained in jails tended to stay there longer. Among the 14 North Carolina jails that provided data consistently for the study, the average detention time was less than a week before the pandemic but climbed to 25 days in June and settled at around 18 days in October — the last month included in the study.

Anna Harvey, one of the authors of the study, said those longer detention times were likely a result of backlogs in court systems with judges pausing trials in an effort to limit viral spread. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, for example, postponed most hearings in district and superior court at the start of the pandemic. 

A report from the North Carolina Judicial Branch found about 100,000 more criminal cases were pending on Oct. 31, 2020, than there were on that day a year earlier.

“They’re not actually able to process these criminal cases and so people detained pretrial are staying there for longer periods of time, which is of course a public health risk,” Harvey told CBS 17 News.

Correctional facilities have many of the elements that could facilitate viral spread, and the numbers bear that out. The state Department of Health and Human Resources has recorded nearly 10,000 COVID-19 cases involving correctional facilities, and more than 1 in 5 county jails or detention centers is experiencing an active outbreak.

And studies show that jails can have a significant impact on coronavirus case counts outside their walls. Jails, which typically house those awaiting trial or serving short sentences, generally have more turnover, potentially leading to more opportunities for the virus to spread.

“Jails are not static, enclosed environments,” Harvey said. “You have a correctional staff who come into work in jails and other correctional facilities every day, and the staff are at risk in these congregate population settings. 

“And then correctional staff go home and pose a risk to their families and their neighbors and their communities,” she added. “New detainees are booked into jail and then some are released and the circulation of detainees also poses a risk to communities. Some jails have limited visitors but to the extent that visitors are allowed, you’re posing a risk. And so it’s the communities in which these jails are located — and every county has a jail, so basically every community. The existence of these facilities, if the density isn’t reduced inside the jail, it really poses a risk to the surrounding community as well.”

Harvey said the team’s research found that the rebooking rate — the percentage of people who wind up back in jail after being released — went down during the pandemic and are about 33 percent lower than before it.

Because of that, she wants the courts to take a data-driven approach in determining which people in jails are least likely to be threats to public safety if they were to be released.

“One of the recommendations is that judges and prosecutors use the data that they have to look at the actual, real public safety risk posed by jail releases and use that data to release more people from jail, conditional to the public safety risk remaining at the lower level that it is now,” she said.

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