Article published May 9, 1999
Crowded jail drives county to action
Searching for answersBy DIANE NORMAN
When they started construction of a new jail on California Avenue in 1992, Spartanburg County officials hoped the $13.8 million project would meet the county's needs for another 10 years. But a month after the facility opened in July 1994, jail director Larry Powers had to transfer some inmates back to the old county jail on Magnolia Street because the population had risen above 400. Since then, the number of detainees has grown steadily. On Nov. 15, 1998, the county's three jail facilities were holding 742 people -- an all-time high. For more than two years, Powers has been asking the County Council for about $12 million to expand the California Avenue jail, and the crowding issue hasn't been the only public safety headache. Last year, a 19-year-old man suffered severe head injuries in a scuffle with a guard, and a 47-year-old inmate who complained of chest pains was not immediately treated and died of a heart attack after he collapsed in the jail. Those events prompted the County Council to hire an independent consultant to study jail operations. The council allocated more money for medical treatment at the jail, bringing the annual cost of operations to about $7 million. Now the county is looking for new ways to address jail overcrowding, costs and potential legal liability. The County Council has commissioned an audit of the judicial system to determine whether the courts can move inmates out of the jail more quickly. And they are negotiating a contract with a private corrections company that could take over management of the county jail. County Councilman Rock Adams, who chairs the council's public safety committee, says jail operations need immediate attention. The jail director is asking for an additional $1.4 million to operate the facility next year, and Adams believes a private company could be more efficient. "We need to save the taxpayers money," Adams said. "It's our job to do it." Adams and some other council members are prepared to put a private company in charge of jail operations this year, if Wackenhut Corrections Corp. can save money and assure the jail's safety. The privatization debate culminates years of discussion about the jail's growing population and safety issues.
Inaction is not an option Jail consultant Gary DeLand told the County Council last fall that the facility is well-run, but the increasing number of arrests and detentions can't be ignored. One thing is sure: The county must do something, said DeLand, a corrections expert from Utah. No matter how high the population goes, the jail can't stop processing arrests or turn away inmates. "We have to take whatever we get," jail director Powers said. And the crowding is creating stresses that can't be ignored. Sometimes one jailer has to supervise as many as 110 men in a pod at the California Avenue jail, Powers said. Powers would like to make sure that no jailer is responsible for more than 80 inmates, and he would like to unite the jail facilities on California Avenue. Last year, he asked the County Council to add 10 more housing units, or 480 cells. DeLand said the county should plan to build more cells, but it should also look for ways to reduce the number of detainees awaiting trial.
Looking for the bottleneck A growing arrest rate is just part of the picture, DeLand told the council. Arrests rose 20 percent in the four years between 1994 and 1998, he said, but the average daily population in the jail is growing four or five times faster. "Average length of stay was the thing that seemed to be the biggest contributor to your population," DeLand said at a Nov. 16 meeting with the County Council. With the number of inmates more than doubling in the past 10 years, the county has not only been faced with expensive construction. Taxpayers spend about $28 per day to house each inmate, according to Powers' calculations. Though DeLand focused on operations and did not evaluate the jail's finances, he said the county could save money if fewer people waited behind bars for their trial dates. The Spartanburg County Detention Center has one of the highest pre-trial incarceration rates in the country, DeLand said. When he visited the jail last summer, about 80 percent of the detainees were awaiting trial. The national average for pre-trial detainees is just over 50 percent, DeLand said, though some jail experts question whether that statistic, reported in the Corrections Yearbook, is an accurate number. "The high pre-trial incarceration rate creates an excessive and unnecessary demand for jail beds," DeLand wrote in his report to Spartanburg County Council. "A significant number of those beds are being tied up by defendants who could be released from jail and allowed to return to their families and employment, rather than tying up the county's finite jail beds resource."
How the numbers add up The amount of time a person spends in jail prior to trial is dependent on two factors: whether he can make bond and how long it takes his case to come to trial. Some defense lawyers have criticized the 7th Circuit Solicitor's Office for leaving defendants in jail for more than a year awaiting trial. One of the most public criticisms came in April, when prosecutors dropped charges against murder suspect Henry Carpenter of Spartanburg, saying there was not enough evidence to take the case to court. Carpenter could not pay his bond and was behind bars for 13 months before the charges were dismissed. But over all, the Solicitor's Office has a history of moving cases well. In a report prepared by the state office of Court Administration, the 7th Circuit had a much better record for fiscal 1997-98 than the state average. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 1998, the average age of pending General Sessions cases in the 7th Circuit was less than six months from the date of arrest. That compares to a statewide average of about 8½ months. The 7th Circuit is made up of Spartanburg and Cherokee counties. Circuit Judge Henry Floyd, who has administrative oversight in the 7th Circuit for the first six months of 1999, has worked with prosecutors and defense lawyers to more quickly move the cases of defendants who are in jail awaiting trial. The Solicitor's Office has divided the schedule of cases into a plea docket and trial docket, enabling judges to move many cases through guilty pleas when defendants want that option. Floyd also convened the circuit's first docket purge meeting on April 16 to move along cases that are more than one year old. Floyd said it's a tool he has used in other circuits with some success. "What you're trying to do ... is chop down some trees so you can see the forest," Floyd said. Floyd doesn't believe Spartanburg County has more old cases than other communities. There are just a lot of cases in the system, he said.
Bond questions DeLand told the County Council he thinks the bottleneck at the Spartanburg County jail is a result of high bonds. "A significant number of persons for whom unnecessarily high bail has been set are essentially 'serving time' despite the fact that they have not been adjudicated guilty of any crime; present no significant risk to flee jurisdiction; and have not been found to be a serious risk to community safety," DeLand wrote in his report. Magistrates set bonds for most people charged with crimes, but Spartanburg County Chief Magistrate Robert Hall says he doesn't know how DeLand concluded that bonds were too high. If DeLand was looking at jail records, he might not have had the suspect's complete criminal history, Hall said. Sometimes bail is higher for habitual criminals, or the person may have a violent history that isn't reflected on the file cards that jailers keep in the booking area, he said. Because there are so many variables, the County Council has ordered an audit of the county judicial departments - Magistrate Court, Solicitor's Office and Public Defender's Office - to determine whether there are inefficiencies in the system, Council Chairwoman Karen Floyd said. Floyd, who is a former prosecutor and served as the county's chief magistrate in 1993 and 1994, said the DeLand report contains one perspective. The County Council wants to view the situation from all angles, she said.
Tax dollars at work The operations of the jail, the county sheriff's office and the court system - including the Magistrate Court, Solicitor's Office, Clerk of Court's office and Public Defender's Office - take up about 50 cents of every dollar taxpayers send to the county's general fund. "Law enforcement is our biggest budget item," said Councilman David Britt, and this will be a tight budget year. The judicial audit - which should be finished in late June or early July - is intended to make sure the county is using taxpayers' money efficiently, Britt said. Once those numbers are in, Britt said the county will need to look toward some creative solutions. "I'm just not going to continue to let this thing go on," Britt said. "I'm not going to continue to throw money down the hole of corrections."
Staff writer Chad Barwick contributed to this report. Diane Norman can be reached at email@example.com or (864) 877-3225.