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News Jail house blues: Proposed bill could burden county detention centers

If House Bill 642 passes the Macon County Detention Center could be flooded with inmates from state prisons.In an effort to revamp the criminal justice system in North Carolina, legislators have proposed a bill that would move some inmates in state prisons to county jails to relieve overcrowding and cut state expenditures.

House Bill 642, titled the “Justice Reinvestment Act,” seeks to authorize state prison facilities to enter into voluntary agreements with counties to provide housing for misdemeanor offenders serving periods of incarceration between 90 and 180 days, excluding those convicted of impaired driving.

The proposed legislation is now in the early discussions. However, if the act passes, Macon County officials say it would prove costly for area counties to run their jails. Furthermore, the counties would receive no compensation to house the inmates by the state.

“What would happen today if you had those (offenders) that you already sent off?” County Commissioner Ronnie Beale asked of Sheriff Robbie Holland, who said that the Macon County Sheriff’s Office would require an increase in budget funds next year to handle the increased jail population.

“Every dollar that they’d save would be burdened out on to the county,” said Holland of the state’s agenda to cut down on correctional spending. “This is just another way for the state to put the cost on local taxpayers.”

The Macon County jail can hold up to 75 inmates, with a 12 female inmate maximum. It currently averages at 50-55 percent capacity, Holland said, however during Superior Court, the jail can exceed 75 percent of its capacity.

On average, about 55 prisoners a day are housed at Macon’s facility. “So you’re only talking about a population of 20-25 more that we could accept,” said Holland. “In any given Superior Court week, we’re near capacity in our jail. People who are convicted and sentenced to prison come into our jail and then have to wait until the prison system has an opening. But if they did this, they would just keep them with us, which means we would be at maximum capacity at all times.”

The annual budget for the detention center is $1.73 million out of a total budget of $5.4 million for the Macon County Sheriff's Office in the 2011-12 Fiscal Year. Holland was unable to project a definite increase in detention costs if the bill passes, however he did indicate that it would be substantial. “You don’t know until it actually happens. But you might as well double whatever our budget is now,” he said.

Macon’s jail joins 32 other county jails in the state that are currently under 80 percent of their inmate capacity, including Swain and Clay counties. Cherokee and Jackson County, along with 15 other counties, are between 80 and 100 percent capacity.

Joining the 53 other counties, the Graham County jail is at or above the maximum inmate capacity.

Regardless of Macon’s detention center falling in a relatively safe category, Holland said that with the proposed bill it could easily reach its limit. “It’s an absolute enormous burden on Macon County Taxpayers. What it means is convicted criminals would have to stay in county jails, which would require additional manpower, jail space, food, and funds for insurance.”

According to Beale, the bill is undergoing some changes already. “They’ve modified that bill some,” said Beale. Representative David Guice (R-Transylvania), who sponsored the bill, has already introduced some changes. That will have a profound effect on the on the final legislation.


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