Buncombe County, NC

Change in Jail Population 12%

Action Areas Community Engagement Courts Data Analysis Diversion Pretrial Services Racial Disparities

Last Updated

Background

Over the past decade, the Buncombe County jail population has fluctuated, but when the county joined the Safety and Justice Challenge in 2018, the jail population had grown to historically high levels. At that point, the data suggested that the percentage of females in the jail would rise so high that by 2020, the facility would be over capacity.

While there were a range of reasons that people have been detained in the jail, the main drivers of the jail population were pretrial defendants and the length of stay. Between 2015 and 2018, the pretrial population grew nearly 15%, from just over 300 to 350 people awaiting trial.

Detention continued to disrupt the lives of people’s families and communities. It led to higher re-arrest rates and produced worse case outcomes, including people cycling in and out of jail. A high percentage of people in jail had an identified mental health issue, and these individuals often experienced longer stays in pretrial detention. The impact of jail was placing a particularly heavy toll on Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color.

Strategies

Since joining the Safety and Justice Challenge, Buncombe County has advanced a number of strategies to rethink and redesign its criminal justice system so that it is more fair, just and equitable for all.

01

ENHANCING PRETRIAL RELEASE

The county continues to enhance strategies for pretrial release, including pursuing diversion options, especially for people with substance use disorders; introducing a structured risk assessment to inform magistrates’ pretrial release decisions; and maintaining the use of non-financial release conditions and focusing on safely releasing individuals charged with non-violent offenses.

02

IMPROVING CASE PROCESSING

The county continues to increase efficiencies in case processing in several ways: creating a Jail Review Team and expanding its focus to include criteria for unsecured bonds and parameters for detention; reviewing cases for early release of people who have received jail sentences and identifying non-jail alternatives for certain charges; and increasing early access to defense counsel.

03

INCREASING COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT

The Community Engagement Workgroup held a series of listening sessions to create space for community members to share experiences and concerns and generate solutions. Looking ahead, the workgroup will provide education on the justice system, collaborate with community members to develop interventions that address community safety and drivers of incarceration; and partner with community groups on events.

04

BUILDING COLLABORATIVE RACIAL EQUITY

To advance racial equity in its justice system, the county has hired a coordinator to champion collaborative racial equity work; is expanding data analysis and the review of policies and practices using the local Racial Equity Workgroup’s equity tool; continues to train stakeholders; and partners with community members to discuss challenges and co-design solutions and interventions.

05

ADVANCING COMMUNITY SAFETY & VIOLENCE PREVENTION

The county launched a new initiative in 2020 to work with community partners to identify strategies to address violence and work towards community healing, through investing in community-led initiatives and engaging stakeholders in developing a collaborative and coordinated plan to prevent and respond to community violence.

Results

As a result of the strategies above, Buncombe County has made progress towards its goal of rethinking and redesigning its criminal justice system. Specifically, the county has been able to safely reduce its jail population. In 2020, there was an increase in the number of people charged with lower level offenses released without having to pay bail/bond, and these individuals had decreased recidivism rates compared with similar releases in 2019.

Quartery ADP for Buncombe County (2018-2021)

12.2% from baseline

More Results

Key to the success of the county’s Safety and Justice Challenge work to date has been the creation of the Community Engagement Workgroup (CEW). Community interest in advancing change in the justice system has been high and progress has been made to increase public involvement in this work. The county has increased the representation of community members across workgroups and on councils, intentionally engaging people impacted by the justice system. As of May 2021, the CEW had hosted nine engagement events reaching over 500 participants. As a result of community engagement efforts, the information from these conversations was shared with other workgroups in the justice system and informed the inclusion of the county’s community safety and violence prevention strategy.

To better embed racial equity in efforts to transform the justice system, the Racial Equity Workgroup (REW) has held over 15 educational and training opportunities, both internally and with broader justice system stakeholders and partners. The REW has analyzed disparities across justice system decision points, developed strategies to incorporate a focus on equity, and laid the foundation for the County’s proclamation of Racism as a Public Safety Emergency. The REW developed a Racial Equity Tool to identify policies and practices contributing to inequities, and is designing a local equity curriculum for justice system partners.

Collaboration between the county’s behavioral health and criminal justice partners has focused on screening people in jail for diversion to treatment and supporting planning for re-entry into the community. More specifically, the county was able to enhance its Familiar Faces program for individuals with complex needs to reduce arrests and increase collaboration across service providers. Between January 2020 and January 2021, the Familiar Faces program coordinated care of 15 individuals and clients saw a 45% reduction in arrests and reported increased collaboration across service providers. From July 2020 to March 2021, more than 100 clients were released from jail to treatment through the diversion program for substance use.

With the addition of a re-entry case manager in October 2020, 28 individuals were able to receive additional case management support upon release. Of these clients, 86% engaged in more community-based mental health treatment; 75% were able to establish and maintain stable housing; 75% reported abstinence from and/or a decrease in substance use; and 93% did not experience rearrest within the reporting period.

Finally, thanks to the support of the Safety and Justice Challenge network, strong collaboration in the criminal justice system to-date, and community partners working toward the goal of safely reducing the jail population, the county was able to respond quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic and simultaneously protect public health and public safety.

Remaining Challenges

Buncombe County is focused on addressing its remaining challenges in its local justice system.

While the county has seen progress with safely decreasing its jail population, the proportion of Black people in jail reached its highest levels in July 2020, which was also the point where the jail population was at its lowest level. Moving forward, the county is focusing on root causes of inequities, including investing in and growing the new community safety and violence prevention initiative.

In addition, the limitations of the state-based court reminder system have been a consistent challenge as the county has worked to improve access to reliable court reminders and reduce failures to appear in court. There has also been confusion around who is expected to appear in court during the pandemic. To address this, the county is working to try to coordinate messaging across court partners to communicate with the public about expectations related to appearing in court during the pandemic.

Lead Agency

Buncombe County

Contact Information

Tiffany Iheanacho or Hannah Legerton

Partners

There are two groups through which community leaders and organizations engage with reform strategies.

First is the Justice Resource Advisory Council (JRAC), which is comprised of District and Superior Court Judges, Clerk of Court, Magistrate, District Attorney, City Manager, City Mayor, Public and Private Defense, Law Enforcement, Bureau of Identification, Pretrial Services, Community Corrections, Juvenile Justice, Behavioral Health Managed Care Organization, representatives from the Office of the County Manager and Board of Commissioners, and Community Members.

Second is the Community Engagement Workgroup, which was established after the county received its first SJC Implementation award. The role of this group has been to infuse community voices and perspectives throughout the work of reducing jail population and racial disparities. CEW is comprised of a range of individuals, including people with lived experience and representatives from organizations providing direct support to people involved in the justice system.

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