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VOL. 131 | NO. 181 | Friday, September 9, 2016

Shelby County Jail Population Up With Longer Stays While Awaiting Trial

By Bill Dries

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The Shelby County Jail is getting crowded and it’s because prisoners awaiting trial are staying longer.

Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft hears a case in his Division VIII courtroom on Tuesday, Sept. 6. The county jail population has reached a critical level as inmates who are awaiting trial stay there longer.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

And they are staying longer, in part, because of recent state laws that make plea deals less likely.

“We’re not arresting more people,” said Chris Floyd, the jail population management analyst. “Our increase is due entirely to the length of stay. Our bookings have actually been at low levels for this year and last year compared to past historical trends.”

Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham summoned leaders of the local criminal justice system to an August meeting to talk about the problem.

“Currently the 2016 population is greater than it has been for the prior three years and is at a critical level,” Oldham wrote in a July 25 letter. “The primary driver appears to be a significant increase in length of stay, specifically for the in-custody felony population,” Oldham added.

A June jail population management report from the sheriff’s office shows an average daily population of men in the county jail at 2,416, which is the highest the monthly average has been in at least three years, although the monthly numbers have always been north of 2,000 over that time.

The average daily jail population of women in June was 278, also the highest level that figure has been at least since January 2013.

Among male inmates in the county jail for more than 72 hours, the average length of stay in June was 51 days. In January, the figure spiked to a high of 80 days before dropping to 51 days in February, then 62 days in March, 61 in April and 48 in May.

For women prisoners in the jail over 72 hours, the average length of stay in June was 24 days, and the yearly average since 2014 has dropped from 33 to 25.

Forty percent of male inmates and 26 percent of female inmates spend longer than 72 hours behind bars before being released.

Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft, whose court handles major violator and career felony offender cases, has been meeting with the group too.

“It used to be if you committed an aggravated robbery … if you didn’t have a horrible record … you could ask for parole after you had done 30 percent of your sentence,” Craft said. “If someone pled guilty to eight years, which is the minimum sentence for aggravated robbery, they had the possibility of getting parole in three years.”

That changed in 2010 with a new state law that requires prisoners to serve 85 percent of their sentence before being considered for parole.

“If you want to plead guilty and take the minimum sentence of eight years, you are going to have to do over six years before you can get parole,” Craft said, continuing with the example of an aggravated robbery case.

“Bonds for those crimes are higher because they carry more actual punishment,” he said. “Defendants then, more of them, need a public defender because they can’t be out on bond and work. The cases, because they are asking them to plead guilty to a lot of time in the state penitentiary, a lot of them want trial. It takes longer to settle and negotiate.”

Craft says get-tough measures may be warranted. But he adds that the changes he and others are reviewing and considering aren’t about letting people off the hook from criminal charges to relieve overcrowding.

“Our jail is not for people to be punished, it’s for a holding facility until we get their case tried or disposed,” Craft said. “We’re not talking about letting them out on the street. We are talking about getting them either on probation and on the street or to the penal farm or to the department of corrections. They are spending more time in our jail because of these huge bonds, because of the greater punishment. They are not increasing the years, but they are increasing the time before they can get parole.”

The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office applied for a two-year, $2 million MacArthur Foundation grant earlier this year to fund a list of 10 measures to shorten the time it takes for cases to move through the legal system. The effort was awarded a one-year, $150,000 grant in May, with the foundation taking a look at a supplemental grant proposal next year.

Katy Mack, the grants manager for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, is working across the boundaries of the various jurisdictions that someone accused of a crime comes into contact with during their journey through the local criminal justice system.

“Moving forward, it’s going to be getting all of these different agencies together. Obviously the jail is the end product of all of the decisions that happen along the way,” she said. “Two or three days can have a pretty significant impact on a person in their daily life – their work, their family, everything.”

Craft said there can be a three-day delay in a guilty plea if one of the two elevators that brings prisoners to court from the jail breaks down – as they often do.

“They are breaking down all the time,” he said. “I’ll have someone who wants to plead guilty. It’s Friday, so we have to set that for Monday. So that’s another three days.”

One of the first things Mack did was to create a flow chart for the way cases move through the system, noting potential bottlenecks.

“You often heard, ‘I didn’t know that’s how it happens. I didn’t know that’s how it works,’” she said of the reaction to the chart from those who work in the system every day. “We each kind of work within a few unique little areas. There’s a lot of wonderment.”

Past the wonderment is difficulty.

“You are going to have to have hard conversations with people who may say, ‘I don’t know if I want to change,’” Mack added. “If you can look at data, you can have a rational conversation about why maybe we can work together.”

Mack is among those working on the risk assessment that pre-trial services does to determine who is a worthy candidate for some kind of supervised or monitored release. The system has been in place for years, but the work is to build more confidence in it among judges who make the decisions on whether to follow the recommendations.

And it is a decision with considerable implications.

Based on the statistics kept by Floyd, which the sheriff’s office has over several decades, the current problems are with “in-custody felons” – those charged with violent crimes whose cases, because of state laws that mandate higher penalties and thus higher bond, take longer to get resolved either by a trial or a guilty plea.

“If we want to see any major kind of major reduction in population, we have to focus on that group,” Floyd said. “They are taking up the jail days. We have misdemeanors, but they come and they go really quickly. We don’t have a lot of people in jail with low bonds.”

Craft says the preponderance of those accused of violent crimes has the potential to make the jail more violent.

“We need to have more precautions, but at the same time we need to move them through the system,” he said.

Kirk Fields, the assistant jail chief, points to anger-management classes, quarterly programs that allow fathers in jail to see their children and a “circle up” daily morning talk among prisoners.

It makes the jail more than the “holding cell” it is in theory.

“Guys are being detained longer, and some of that is because of the laws that have changed in Nashville,” he said. “I think if we can find a way for all of the law enforcement community to work together, we can reduce our jail population.”

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