DA tech request sparks jail finance concerns

COURT HOUSE: Buncombe County's judiciary is set to remain unchanged with none of the incumbent judges facing opposition in the polls. So far the board of education races are shaping up similarly but there is still time for others to file and the Soil and Water board could see changes with five candidates vying for two seats. Photo by Arianna Moore

A request for iPads led members of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners to question how funds from the jail’s commissary are used and even ask about inmates’ general welfare.

During the Sept. 5 meeting, commissioners heard a presentation from District Attorney Todd Williams and Sheriff Van Duncan asking for $97,000 for tech upgrades to bolster a new initiative, a community access portal, aimed at relegating paper to the past and expediting a suite of services available via the county’s court system.

That money would go toward iPads for various court employees, allowing them to use a new digital platform. “What I can tell you is in the nine days it has been up and running, it has impacted 53 inmates,” Duncan said of the community access portal. The sheriff explained that instead of waiting for a paper file from the clerk’s office, information is instantly transmitted to the detention center, allowing people to leave jail sooner, a move he said could help postpone the need for construction of a new jail.

“This looks like a good effort. We will look at it at year’s end and bring back a report so you can see what days in custody [were saved] and the bang for the buck we are getting out of it,” said Duncan.

Williams noted that in a short time the paperless system was already having an effect. “The wheels of justice grind slowly, and we want to speed that up,” the DA said, noting that the paperless system means those eligible for dismissal on minor charges will no longer be held over the weekend because there is nobody to file the proper paperwork.

In fact, Williams estimated that the program had already saved the county $2,941 based on a cost of $111 per day to keep someone in the detention center and averaging each of the 53 releases as cutting down on jail time by 12 hours. “In 10 months, the project pays for itself. In the long run, we want it to be a community access portal so folks can communicate with our office in a much easier fashion and ultimately replace the paper subpoena process. It will keep law enforcement doing what they are charged to do,” explained Williams.

Duncan noted the $111 per day figure is not just based on room and board but also factors various administrative costs in processing new inmates.

However, not all court officials thought the request was the best use of funds. LeAnn Melton, the county’s public defender, told commissioners she appreciates the DA office’s effort to modernize and streamline the court process. “I would ask commissioners to ask if commissary is where the funding should come from. Maybe it should come from the general fund,” she explained, while noting the money could go to toward a GED or other program. “I would ask commissioners to invest in inmate welfare and fund alcohol monitoring for those who can’t afford it as part of probation. I’m all for dismissals. They are happening without the additional money and equipment.”

Chief District Court Judge Calvin Hill also addressed commissioners. “According to all information, these 53 people have been released under our current conditions. … My practice is to come to commissioners and make requests for money or materials when I believe they will move the court system forward and it’s something I need. I didn’t join this request, as I don’t see where I need it,” he said.

North Carolina state law says funds from the commissary must go toward inmate welfare. Duncan noted that the county’s commissary generates about $500,000 annually, noting that much of it goes toward chaplains, cable television, mattresses and diversion programs.

Some commissioners questioned if the tech upgrade was an appropriate use. “There is great work happening at the jail. There is a lot to be applauded with the DA’s office and modernization,” said Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara. “The point I’d like to raise is whether there is a line we can connect between the purpose of inmate welfare funds and the purchases of iPads for DA’s office. … I’m struggling to connect those dots,” she said before requesting commissioners revisit the issue at a future date.

Commission Chair Brownie Newman raised the question: “Where would [the funding] come from? If it’s a good idea, let’s support it. I think there are benefits to getting people out sooner. There’s a real public good.”

Commissioner Ellen Frost argued that commissioners should not micromanage the sheriff’s budget decisions.

Commissioner Joe Belcher agreed, adding, “Any program we do in Buncombe County we are good at measuring. I would challenge everybody passionate on both sides to hold us accountable, to measure this.”

Commissioner Al Whitesides latched onto earlier comments about the commissary being a source of food and convenience store-type items for inmates. “When I hear they need additional food … this brings up other questions. I do have concerns,” he stated.

Duncan was quick to address the issue of prisoners and meals. “I don’t want people going away thinking we don’t feed inmates. By state law, they get three meals a day, two have to be hot. I can provide you with caloric intake. It absolutely meets state standards,” he explained.

Duncan further defended his commissary expenditures, noting that alcohol monitoring is part of that budget. “There has not been a request that has come from that commissary purview that I’ve not granted, quite frankly,” he said.

Newman again queried where the money would come from if not the commissary and put the measure to a vote. Ultimately, the $97,000 was approved with Commissioners Beach-Ferrara and Robert Pressley voting against it.

Earlier this year Xpress ran a story about jail food titled “Beyond bread and water: A look at food served to inmates in state prisons and Buncombe jail” that you can read here.

Williams said the services available through the community access portal will continue to grow and include a variety of victim services. The website is live, and you can explore it here.

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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at dhesse@mountainx.com.

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2 thoughts on “DA tech request sparks jail finance concerns

  1. david

    This is a real stretch on using money from the Inmate Commisary fund and try to justify it as a benefit to Inmates. Come on, its a benefit to the County. Typically Inmate Commissary funds are required to be spent on things that are supposed to directly benefit Inmates in Custody as they are the ones that pay inflated prices for things like phone calls etc..

  2. bsummers

    I agree with David. Weird to make this request out of commissary funds. Did they think the Commissioners wouldn’t agree to it if it were a request out of general funds? It sounds like a good proposal which will streamline things, save money, provide benefit to inmates, etc. Why provoke the kind of reaction this article represents, by taking it out of commissary funds? Weird.

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