Online detention center dashboards unveiled in May are the first of their kind in the state to be made freely available to the public, according to the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office. The dashboards include day-by-day data on the jail population, broken down by gender, race, type of confinement and length of stay.
Updated weekly, the most recent counts reflect data from Nov. 11-17. During that week, the jail population ranged from 545 to 562 inmates per day; at press time, the year-to-date daily average for 2019 was 536 inmates, up about 1.2% from last year’s 529 figure.
So far this year, female inmates have accounted for 13% of the jail population. According to census data, the county’s overall population is about 52% female.
Roughly one-quarter of the total jail census this year were African Americans, who represent about 6% of county residents. White inmates made up 73%; the balance were of other races or their race wasn’t known.
About 69% of those confined at the county jail in 2019 were people awaiting trial; the rest were a mix of federal inmates the county was paid to house (about 16%), people serving sentences for misdemeanors (about 6.5%) and assorted other categories. This year, prisoners have stayed an average of 12.5 days after their initial booking — an increase of nearly two days over the 2018 figure. Black defendants’ average stay was nearly 14 days, while whites stayed just over 12 days on average.
The two longest-serving inmates, both of whom are white men, have been incarcerated there since July 2015. The longest-serving female inmate is a white woman who was originally arrested in February 2016. She was subsequently sentenced for driving while impaired and is serving a sentence projected to end in October 2020.
In October 2018, Buncombe County received a $1.75 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of 52 sites chosen for the nonprofit’s Safety and Justice Challenge. The national initiative seeks to “reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails,” according to a county press release. In Buncombe’s case, a key target is cutting the average pretrial jail population by 15% by September 2020, says Tiffany Iheanacho, who’s served as the county’s justice resource coordinator since 2017.
Another objective of the Safety and Justice Challenge, she notes, is reducing racial disparities among incarcerated people. But while other sites that have been part of the initiative since 2015 have seen their jail populations come down, “The disparities were not reduced,” Iheanacho explains.
“I have not met a county that does not have a [racial] disparity issue,” she says. “I’ve seen some … [where] the community of color, where they were 5% of the population and made up 50% of the jail. We probably average 21-26% African Americans in custody. For our African American defendants, they stay in custody longer, and they’re usually charged with higher-level offenses proportionately.”
Asked about the disparity, Sheriff Quentin Miller said he supports “reforming our bond schedule so that low-level, nonviolent offenders do not sit in the detention facility pretrial solely based on how much someone has in their bank account or how much cash they are able to put together from friends and family on short notice. Our criminal justice system should not operate differently for someone who has $50 in the bank versus someone who has $500,000. Do I control the bond process? No. But if I speak out in my role as sheriff, hopefully that will help contribute to the dialogue we need to move things forward. Criminal justice reform is not going to happen on its own.”