Stanly commissioners hear report on overcrowded jail, discuss possible solutions

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many aspects of life in Stanly, including the legal system and the local jail.

At a special work session recently, Stanly County Manager Andy Lucas made a presentation to Stanly County commissioners on overcrowding problems at the county jail. Sheriff Jeff Crisco and deputy sheriff Ashley Thompson attended the session as well.

Lucas said the court system was basically shut down for 12 months, with many cases which “continued to be continued.” He said courts were in limbo with some cases heard but not a significant number of them.

Prior to the pandemic in March 2020, the jail had 148 inmates and people continued to be arrested despite the courts processing fewer cases.

Many of those arrested, Lucas said, have used COVID as a reason for not appearing in court, so more failure to appear notices are being issued.

The sheriff said inmate totals have hovered around 170 the last few months, which does not include 30 inmates being housed in other facilities. The jail is over its rated capacity, which the state sets at 80 percent, or 133 inmates in Stanly’s case.

Inmates housed in other facilities cost Stanly $40 per day at a minimum but can cost up to $55. With 30 inmates, the cost per day for Stanly to house inmates elsewhere is between $1,200 and $1,650 depending upon the rate.

In a slide presentation, Lucas also said facilities in other counties are not accepting more out-of-county inmates because of COVID and their own staffing issues.

The overcrowded jail is a health and safety issue, Lucas said, noting the jail was down in the pandemic to around 100 inmates, but the population spiked in June.

Lucas said he and Crisco met with Stanly County District Attorney T. Lynn Clodfelter and others regarding the situation. The response from the DA’s office was basically, he said, “this problem is not going away…welcome to the new times.”

Lucas said Clodfelter basically said, “The new normal is your jail cells are going to be full. You need to build more jail cells.”

Lucas and the county staff contacted architects to see how much an expansion of the new jail would cost. The estimate was $9.65 million to add 96 beds and increase the facility’s capacity to 227. Assuming a loan with a three percent interest, the annual debt service from Stanly would cost $650,000 annually. Lucas noted the cost for the out-of-county inmates is around $500,000 already.

The pre-trial release program which the county had from 2006 to 2009 was suggested by Lucas for reinstatement. Many counties have such a program which focuses on substance abuse, mental health, education and employment as conditions for release. Lucas and Crisco both said the program only applies to those facing non-violent misdemeanor charges.

The average length of stay in prison is 30 days. However, many inmates are in jail for three, four and five months, with a couple who have been in jail three years. With more bonds being treated as a homicide, Crisco said “their bonds are through the roof.” Also in many homicide cases, more than one person is charged, he added.

When Commissioner Scott Efird asked about the typical misdemeanor charge most people are in jail for, the sheriff said “anything from larceny to DWI (driving while impaired).”

Programs like Safer Communities, which was used before COVID, could also help, Chairman Bill Lawhon said while attending the meeting remotely. Lucas said Stanly was using it for about six months before the pandemic, but it’s more of a life skills and treatment program “that’s supposed to be helping recidivism.”

Vice Chairman Tommy Jordan, also attending remotely, asked if they were looking for a long-term solution or just to “put your finger in the dam.” Noting everything is getting busier, he added “we need more space unless you want to pay half a million dollars a year” to house inmates elsewhere.

Lawhon said Stanly used to seek inmates from other counties because it was profitable for Stanly’s jail. Lucas agreed, but said the county could no longer do that because the jail is full.

No action was taken during the work session or in the regular meeting of the board which took place right after the work session.