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Thursday, May 30, 2024

A look at the coordinated local effort to keep jail populations down as coronavirus spreads [Free read]

The public defender’s office and the district attorney’s office are working to resolve cases for low-level offenders to keep inmate populations down as concerns surrounding the coronavirus rise. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — With many court functions postponed as the coronavirus crisis ramps up locally, there’s been some concerted effort to leave room in the New Hanover and Pender County jails.

In central North Carolina, some county district attorneys offices have begun releasing low-level, non-violent offenders or inmates who have a high-risk of falling seriously ill should they contract the coronavirus. The idea in these districts is to relieve prison populations, a high-risk confined environment for the contagious virus, while still balancing actual threats to public safety.

Related: Pender emergency management director resigns, officials say no plans to declare emergency [Free read]

In New Hanover, Pender, and Brunswick Counties, there’s an ongoing coordinated effort to reduce the number of would-be inmates from being processed. Jail populations are a concern statewide but while other urban counties are negotiating inmate releases, in southeastern N.C., the agreed-upon focus is to keep additional inmates from being booked.

Still, some (it’s not clear exactly how many) inmates in Pender, New Hanover, Brunswick, Columbus, and Bladen Counties have recently been released through guilty pleas or unsecured bonds. “Some people were scheduled to plead before all of this happened, while others may be motivated to resolve their case in order to get out of jail,” Samantha Dooies, assistant to District Attorney Ben David, wrote in an email Thursday.

To be clear, officials say no one’s getting off the hook because of the public health crisis.

“There hasn’t been any release of defendants just for the sake of releasing them due to COVID-19; rather, we have become laser-like focused on who is entering the jail and working on resolving cases where an inmate will be released completely or will be released to the Department of Adult Correction,” according to Dooies.

Brunswick, Bladen, Columbus

North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley ordered courts to cease many functions March 15, continuing all trial sessions. First appearances and hearings for jailed offenders still continue in largely emptied-out courtrooms.

Covering Brunswick, Bladen, and Columbus Counties, District Attorney Jon David’s Office views unsecured bonds for low-level nonviolent offenders favorably (meaning bail is no longer required to be paid in order for an inmate to be released). Glenn Emery, assistant district attorney, said Thursday he agreed to an unsecure bond for an inmate being held in Columbus County charged with low-level crimes committed in Brunswick County. This move also helps prevent any potential “cross-pollination” between the two jail populations through transfer.

“I’m not going to dismiss those charges just because there’s a coronavirus but we’re going to unsecure a bond and get her out,” Emery said of the inmate. “We’ll unsecure a bond for sure.”

Following the state chief justice’s order, Emery said there was a wave of bond reduction requests, some of which were approved. The DA’s office conducted a thorough review of inmates being held in Brunswick, Bladen, and Columbus County to identify low-level, non-violent, or elderly offenders. At this point, Emery said those remaining in the Brunswick County jail should remain there.

The DA’s office will consider pleas or bond modifications for other inmates, should defense attorneys bring an eligible case to its attention. “Sometimes it’s beholden upon them to approach us,” Emery said of defense attorneys. “We’re not going to know all of their medical conditions.” But at the same time, Emery said his office is equally responsible for closely monitoring the incarcerated.

“We’re sworn to uphold the constitution. That doesn’t always mean to keep them in jail. That means do what’s right,” he said.

New Hanover, Pender

In New Hanover and Pender Counties, District Attorney Ben David’s Office has begun permitting some bond reductions in an effort to keep low-level offenders out of jail.

“We remain concerned about the jail population and maintaining this resource for offenders who are incarcerated on serious charges or have lengthy criminal histories,” Dooies wrote in an email.

According to Dooies, jail populations have “decreased significantly” in New Hanover and Pender Counties over the last week. Putting a number on the exact number of releases would be difficult, Dooies said. [Editor’s note: A search of inmates two weeks ago, unrelated to the Covid-19 outbreak, indicated about 450 listed inmates; this week that number hovered between 350 and 375.]

“The effort in reducing the jail population has been more focused on working with defense attorneys, clerks, and judges to resolve as many in-custody cases as possible, even if this is in advance of a defendant’s scheduled court date,” Dooies wrote in an email Thursday. “Some local rules have also been adapted to manage cases more efficiently without having to bring people into the courthouse and to set bonds commensurate with the sentence that a defendant could potentially face upon conviction.”

No cases are being dismissed due to the virus, according to Chief Public Defender Jennifer Harjo. Very few cases are being resolved, Harjo said, limited to those in custody. For example, a client of Harjo’s who could not afford to post bail recently plead guilty, even though he didn’t want to, in order to be released, she said.

A problem that persists with or without the coronavirus, Harjo said her office is working to negotiate on behalf of clients being held because of financial reasons. “If you have money, you can get out. If you don’t, you stay in jail,” she said.

Harjo would like to see bonds reduced or unsecured for low-level crimes, an effort that judges and the district attorney’s office have recently agreed to on some occasions, and sometimes not.

Charges like panhandling, speeding, driving without a license, shoplifting, and trespassing should not be prosecuted at this time, Harjo said. “We have a lot of cases that are just junk, that just clog up the system,” Harjo said. “If it went away, it’s not going to hurt anybody.”

The District Attorney’s Office has asked local law enforcement agencies to issue citations rather than arrest individuals that appear to have committed nonviolent Class H and I felonies, the lowest level felony classifications, according to Harjo. Dooies said this request also extends to nonviolent misdemeanors, such as the governor’s recent order banning gatherings of 50 or more.

“Law enforcement has been advised to remain vigilant about investigating and arresting on serious offenses and will continue to use the resources available to them to detain anyone who poses a threat to public safety,” Dooies said.

This protects officers from making close contact when it could be prevented and can help keep inmate populations reduced during the coronavirus crisis. Plus, it lessens the requirements on the courts while contagion concerns remain.

“They’re not good crimes – I’m not saying that – but they’re not quite as serious,” Harjo said of the low-level nonviolent felonies. The offenders will still have to show up to court as usual.

Officer discretion

Linda Thompson, Wilmington Police Department spokesperson said the department has taken the DA’s guidance into consideration. Still, the department is charging and arresting people accused of these felonies — especially if they are violent.

“What we’re doing, we are using officer discretion,” Thompson said. “We certainly aren’t going to tolerate lawlessness.”

If a charge can be issued via citation, (like a small amount of drugs that may typically result in the individual being booked) Thompson said offers have the discretion to avoid arrest. Unnecessary close physical contact can put both officers and alleged offenders at risk.

“We have a lot on the line when we’re trying to enforce the law and keep order,” Thompson said.

In Wake and Mecklenberg Counties, the state’s first and second most populated counties, prosecutors are actively working to identify at-risk inmates eligible to have their bonds unsecured, according to the Charlotte Observer.

This week, advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center have asked state and federal jails and prisons to release nonviolent and immigrant detainees. Inmates have little to no control over whether they contract the virus and are especially vulnerable to contagion, given their close confinement.

Harjo said she would like to see low-level cases dismissed. “I think the humane and correct and appropriate action would be for the DA to look at all of the pending cases, and the cases that are serious, obviously those need to be prosecuted. The cases that are not serious, at this point in time, I think he could dismiss it and it would not cause any consternation for the community.”

Prisoners and employees have recently tested positive for the virus at facilities located in Louisiana, New York, Kansas, and Texas

“Hell is going to break loose if that coronavirus gets into the jail. Who’s going to supervise the inmates if it gets to one of the deputies?” Harjo asked.

Inmate populations

No inmates have been released from the New Hanover County jail from a judge’s order due to the virus, according to Lt. Jerry Brewer, spokesperson for the sheriff’s office.

The New Hanover County jail is at about 79% of its capacity, with 130 beds open. Of its 617 beds total, 60 are dedicated to federal inmates; 73 are currently being held in the jail, according to Brewer. The total inmate population is “slightly lower” now compared to before the coronavirus arrived in North Carolina, Brewer said.

At about 53% capacity, Brunswick County jail has 205 beds open. This population has been relatively consistent compared to before coronavirus concerns increased, according to Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Emily Flax.

Out of 92 peds, Pender County jail has 36 inmates as of Monday, 39% of its capacity, according to Captain Randy King.

Statewide, visitation at the state’s prisons was suspended March 16, limiting entrance to legal and pastoral visits.

In Brunswick County, detention officers are triaged prior to coming on shift. This includes a temperature check, check for though and shortness of breath. “Anyone entering the facility must be triaged,” Flax wrote in an email.

At the New Hanover County jail, the sheriff’s office has implemented a screening process for all employees and civilian personnel entering the facility. “Right now, it’s a temperature check and questions,” Brewer said.

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at

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