Fewer people incarcerated in NC’s county jails during the pandemic, but the ones left are staying longer

By: - January 5, 2021 12:04 pm

Photo: Adobe Stock

Backlogged court system and delayed trials create social justice inequities during COVID-19

While the number of people in county jails has dropped because of the pandemic, some incarcerated people in North Carolina are staying locked up longer, a study monitoring these populations shows.

Judges have halted some hearings and jury trials to limit the spread of the coronavirus. This has caused a backlog in the court system, even as COVID-19 outbreaks continue to rack jails and prisons. And as Phase I of vaccinations begins, only jail staff and incarcerated people with two or more chronic conditions or over age 65 will receive their shots – after healthcare workers, according to the state’s COVID-19 vaccination plan.

“Please help us make it back to our family,” an inmate in Forsyth County Correctional Detention Facility wrote to advocacy group Prison Outreach Initiative. “They will quarantine us, keep us from contacting family if we test positive.”

Anna Harvey, principal investigator at NYU’s Public Safety Lab (Courtesy photo)

The lead researcher of the study, Anna Harvey, a politics professor at New York University, said the longer detentions are consistent with the slowdown of court activities and district attorneys’ work. Harvey’s research team is monitoring jail populations prior to and amid the pandemic.

In January of 2020, a person who had yet to go to trial stayed an average of less than a week in jail, according to a sample of 14 that consistently self-reported their data. In July, the average length of stay had increased to more than month. By the end of 2020, the time period had dropped to just under three weeks, still longer than a year prior.

This sample showing length of stay is from 14 county jails that consistently self-report their populations on the website.

“You don’t want to give someone a death sentence while they’re awaiting trial … and that’s what some people believe being incarcerated equates to right now,” said Durham District Court Judge Amanda Maris.

There is also a social justice aspect to these backlogs. Some incarcerated people have family or friends to bail them out, but some others awaiting trial cannot afford bonds. This financial inequity forces them to stay in jail, some of them hotbeds of COVID-19, and possibly contract the virus, which in some cases can be fatal or result in long-term health problems.

Following a 30-day suspension of most in-person hearings, trials are expected to resume later in January. But even then, the backlog will continue, especially in pending criminal cases. As of October 2020, there were more than 980,000 criminal cases in the pipeline, an increase of nearly 100,000 from 2019. Felony cases account for 25% of the increase, the second-fastest growing offense category according to a report by the state’s Judicial Branch.

Raleigh’s News & Observer reported in December that new state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby has expressed concerns about this issue: “We’ve got to be innovative and come up with some ways to address these backlogs because backlogs are an enemy to equal justice for everyone.” Newby was reported saying, “It’s bad for the criminal defendants that are sitting in jail without their trials.”

Meanwhile, many county jails in North Carolina have reported recent spikes in COVID-19 cases. Statewide, 20 correctional facilities are reporting outbreaks, according to the latest data from the state Department of Health and Human Services. And those numbers are likely an undercount. Some jails don’t regularly test everyone who is incarcerated.

Nor is there a statewide protocol for testing, according to DHHS. The decision is often made by the county health department and local medical providers.

Of the nearly 1,500 people incarcerated in the Mecklenburg County Jail, more than 200 — 13% — tested positive, according to the most recent state health department report. Previous testing identified dozens of employees who were asymptomatic, Mecklenburg County Chief Deputy Sheriff Rodney Collins said.

Collins said the greatest vulnerability in controlling the spread of COVID-19 in jails is the movement of people: the newly incarcerated, those who are released, as well as employees.”As much as we’ve tried to limit the movement, there’s still quite a bit of moving parts that go on in the detention center of the size,” Collins said.

Court personnel are worried about their safety, too. Courtrooms are often crowded; in jury boxes, jurors sit close to one another. In early December, Mecklenburg County’s first jury trial since March concluded with a mistrial because of multiple jurors’ potential COVID exposure and delays, the Charlotte Observer reported.

COVID-19 outbreaks in jails have also led Mecklenburg and Yancey county judges to waive in-person requirements at first appearance hearings.

When the pandemic began in North Carolina last March, Cheri Beasley, who was then state Supreme Court Chief Justice, issued a directive postponing most hearings in district and superior courts to protect the safety of those who interact with the judicial system.

That’s when the 12 sampled county jails in North Carolina witnessed the largest drop of prison populations, according to the report by Harvey’s team.

(North Carolina jail population trends at 12 facilities, Source: NYU Public Safety Lab)


At the time, several county sheriff departments reported a decrease in jail population because of pretrial release policies. Durham District Court Judge Maris said judges “were certainly amenable to reviewing any proposed bond reductions” at the beginning of the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, the courts want to avoid increased pending caseloads whenever possible,” Sharon Gladwell, Communications Director of the state Judicial Branch said in a statement.

Yet the number of people in custody experiencing delays while awaiting trial or transfer is difficult to ascertain because there are a lack of comprehensive data at the state and federal level.

“I think all of us continue to be really sensitive to the fact that if you’re going to allow someone to remain in jail during a pandemic where there’s an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19, that has to be for a legitimate reason grounded in the law,” Maris said.

Harvey’s NYU study showed that the proportion of people re-entering jail after being released during the pandemic has decreased. “We can see that rebooking rates are lower now, which indicates basically lower public safety risk,” Harvey said.

Data from 14 jails in North Carolina shows that the a low percentage of people who were released before trial were rebooked into jail. These people are accused of non-violent crimes and research shows they do not pose a public safety threat.

Harvey said their analysis suggests that jurisdictions “could release many more people from jail without significantly increasing that public safety risk.”

Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry (Courtesy photo)

This is why Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry’s office implemented a pretrial release policy that recommended people with nonviolent charges be released without posting a bond. Deberry’s office has also been prioritizing prosecuting cases involving violent crimes. She emphasized that the majority of these more serious cases are still resolved without trials.

“So if someone is not a danger to themselves or others, we pretty much work every day to make sure those people do not stay detained,” Deberry said.


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Yanqi Xu

Yanqi Xu, Courts, Law and Democracy Reporter, came to Policy Watch in December of 2020 from the Investigative Reporting Workshop in D.C., where she combined data and reporting to cover public accountability issues. Yanqi graduated with a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 2019. Her multimedia work appeared in PolitiFact and the Columbia Missourian, and was featured on the local NPR and NBC affiliates. Originally from China, Yanqi started her career producing newscasts to tell people what’s going on around the world.