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Report questions need for new jail

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NASHVILLE — The need for a new Nash County Detention Center could be mitigated by pretrial incarceration reform, according to a recently released report.

The report outlines several strategies to reduce jail populations and avoid building new jails, according to its author, Lexi Jones, an analyst with Prison Policy Initiative, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan research and advocacy group.

Jones said it’s crucial county officials address problems at the current jail.

Last year, the aging facility had two escapes, several violent attacks and multiple fires started by inmates.

“Jails should not be unsafe and inhumane,” Jones said. “However, this does not mean that the county has to spend millions of dollars of taxpayer dollars on a larger jail. Instead, the county should safely reduce their jail population and invest in community services such as health care, education and housing that can prevent incarceration in the first place.”

The report — “Does our county really need a bigger jail? A guide for avoiding unnecessary jail expansion” — wasn’t crafted with Nash County specifically in mind, but its author said it definitely applies. Jones said she read about the proposed jail expansion project on The Enterprise’s website. She then sent copies of her report to Nash County commissioners.

Chairman Robbie Davis said he’s studied Jones’ report in great detail.

“When faced with any issue, I always try to review any and everything I can find about the subject matter,” Davis said. “I do feel the need for additional jail space in counties in North Carolina will decline as we refine our sentencing acts and as we find better ways to help people that have prior convictions.”

Davis said such reform is more challenging in areas with high crime rates like select areas of Nash County.

Nash County Sheriff Keith Stone also mentioned high-crime areas in his argument for a complete renovation of the existing jail or construction of a new facility.

“We had a record number of homicides in Rocky Mount last year,” Stone said. “We need a safe and secure jail to hold offenders during pretrial, and we need to put them in prison if they’re guilty. We are talking about gangs, guns and drugs. We don’t need to turn felons loose.”

The state Division of Health Service Regulation told Stone that no more than 56 inmates could be housed in the jail while repairs are made to fix multiple safety hazards including electrical problems, cramped sleeping areas and staffing shortages.

County officials are working to make repairs, but Stone said it’s just a Band-Aid.

The Jones report, available in its entirety at prisonpolicy.org/reports/jailexpansion.html, suggests authorities examine how many inmates are being held in the jail simply because they cannot afford bail or fines.

District Attorney Robert Evans said he supports the idea of looking at bail and pretrial release reform. 

“Aside from reducing jail populations, it is a simple matter of justice that poor nonviolent offenders not be held in custody because they cannot afford cash bonds,” Evans said. “In this district currently, my office routinely cooperates with our jail officials to address injustices when they are brought to our attention. The district attorney’s office is rarely aware of who is in custody until an individual is before the court, or we are advised by defense lawyers and jail officials.”

Evans said the Eighth Prosecutorial District — which encompasses Nash, Edgecombe and Wilson counties — currently doesn’t have a formal program or policy to address the issue. 

“It is done on an ad-hoc basis,” Evans said. “If the community sees a need for a more formal approach, my office stands prepared to participate. However, the most relevant stakeholders, our judges and magistrates, will have to take the lead. They are, after all, responsible for issuing pretrial release orders.”

Stone offered a simple solution to jail overcrowding: “Follow the law.”