Jail needs 4,500 more beds

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Mecklenburg County may need to add about 4,500 new jail beds by 2030 to meet its growing inmate population, consultants told county commissioners Tuesday.

But the number of new beds needed could drop by about 23 percent — or about 1,000 beds — if county officials added programs and made changes in the jail system, consultants said.

Among the recommendations: having police issue more citations instead of arresting people for low-level crimes, and shortening the amount of time people spend in jail.

The city-run police department would need to sign off on the idea to make fewer arrests, and the court system would have to find quicker ways to move people through courts.

Commissioners’ chairman Jennifer Roberts has said she’d like to form a panel of leaders across all aspects of the criminal justice system to discuss how to implement the changes.

Tuesday’s discussions were led by consultants from Kimme & Associates of Illinois and Law & Policy Associates of Oregon, whom the county hired last year to study jail needs. A team from American University in Washington, D.C., and local officials also have weighed in.

The county has been searching for ways to ease jail crowding. On average, Mecklenburg had 2,671 inmates daily in 2007, the study said. Inmates in minimum and medium security sleep on the floor because of lack of space.

The consultants told commissioners that, even with program and policy changes, the county would still need to build new jails.

It would cost about $2.6 million to make some of the program changes, and County Manager Harry Jones said he’d consider including some of that money when he recommends a budget in May.

Implementing the entire master plan for jails would be much more expensive. The consultants estimated it could cost $415 million to $505 million to build the new jails — not including the cost to buy land.

Annual operation costs also could grow to about $150 million by 2030, up from about $80 million now.

Many commissioners said the study shows the need for broad changes across the jail system. But commissioner Dan Bishop said he disagreed with the idea of having officers simply give out more citations instead of sending people to jail. He said if the county needs new jails, it should build them to help keep people safe.

Commissioners will discuss the jail plan again in May.

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