Police, judges, attorneys work to reduce Buncombe jail population ahead of COVID-19

COMMON AREA: Shared spaces and services for eating, sleeping, health care, exercise and other aspects of life create conditions for transmitting communicable diseases. Local officials have been working to reduce the jail population in Buncombe County. Photo by Virginia Daffron

People confined in the Buncombe County Detention Facility have considerably more elbow room today than they did prior to N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper’s March 10 declaration of a state of emergency over the COVID-19 crisis. Since then, local law enforcement and criminal justice agencies have reduced the jail’s population by 39%.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued detailed guidance for correctional facilities, noting that the integration of housing, health care and food service in a single physical environment “presents unique challenges for control of COVID-19 transmission among incarcerated/detained persons, staff and visitors.” 

Chief District Court Judge J. Calvin Hill announced at a March 17 county press conference that as many as 50 people had been released from the county jail the previous day. On April 1, Hill told Xpress that the effort to reduce confinements to minimize the risk of an outbreak among inmates was continuing, with the jail population “as low as I’ve seen it probably in the last 10 or 12 years.” 

Hill stressed that public safety and victims’ interests remain primary considerations for judges. Those defendants receiving unsecured release or reduced bond amounts, he said, are facing misdemeanor charges of a nonviolent nature. 

“If it was a person who had a felony larceny, and nobody was hurt, and that person had failed to appear in court 10 times — normally, we might keep that person for a while. Now, we’re not doing that,” Hill explained. “We’re just unsecuring that bond to try to get the jail as sparsely populated as we can.”

Judges have imposed additional conditions for release in some cases, such as electronic monitoring, according to Hill.

While COVID-19 has created “an extraordinary situation,” Hill said, the pace of releases has slowed in recent days. “We are beginning now to reach that part of the jail population where these people have more serious charges. The judges have more concern about releasing them, because a lot of the charges may be trafficking in large amounts of dangerous drugs,” he said.

District Attorney Todd Williams said his office had dismissed “a number of charges,” though he couldn’t provide an exact figure specific to the COVID-19 emergency. 

Williams emphasized that his office has long advocated for pretrial release of nonviolent defendants whenever possible. “I’ve got a staff that regularly engages in reviewing and consenting to the release of folks who are not a violent public safety threat in our community,” he said. “We’re going to continue to engage with [defense attorneys] and the district court bench to ensure that our resources to hold people who are public safety threats in jail are preserved, so that when we need that resource, it’s there.”

Recent modifications to local policing practices have also helped reduce the jail population. 

Christina Hallingse, spokesperson for the Asheville Police Department, said that Chief David Zack had announced changes associated with COVID-19 on March 23. The chief instructed officers that “in situations where charging is a needed outcome, it is preferred to issue citations for future court appearance,” Hallingse said. 

“Physical arrest should be reserved for situations where the nature of the crime or the totality of the circumstances makes it the best option,” the chief’s directive specified.

According to an April 2 story in The New York Times, law enforcement officials in jurisdictions including New York, Houston and Southern California are taking similar steps to reduce arrests and jail bookings. At the same time, the story noted, some sheriffs continue “business as usual,” including arrests for offenses such as possession of small amounts of marijuana or nonviolent felonies. Even if those individuals are held only a short time, epidemiologists said, each one has the potential to introduce the new coronavirus into the jail population.

On April 2, N.C. Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee said during a media briefing that four inmates and four employees of the state correctional system had tested positive for COVID-19. None of those infected are confined or work in Western North Carolina.

While the booking process at the Buncombe jail includes a temperature check and screening questions, said Aaron Sarver, spokesperson for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, no county inmate has met current criteria for testing for COVID-19, nor has any inmate been placed in quarantine due to symptoms associated with the disease. Sarver provided a list of new cleaning protocols begun March 19, which included instructions to officers to clean common surfaces such as tables, handrails, telephones, security card readers and computer workstations multiple times throughout each shift.

“The big takeaway is we are a 604-bed facility, and with 390 or so [detained], we are significantly under [capacity],” said Sarver, emphasizing that Buncombe’s 13 housing units provide options for separating those who may be infected. “That’s a very important contrast with some of the jails and prisons we see that are overcrowded.”

Sheriff Quentin Miller thanked Hill and Williams for their efforts to reduce the number of people in custody at the jail. “The public must understand that this is a pretrial facility, and the Sheriff’s Office is working proactively to stop it from becoming a hub for the virus,” Miller said.


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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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