No space for state prisoners

North Carolina lawmakers want Catawba County to house its state prisoners in the future, but county officials say the extra inmates will be a “burden” and complicate years of “good planning.”

During this year’s summer session, legislators passed a Justice Reinvestment Act that allows the state to house its misdemeanant prisoners inside county jails. The agreement between the Department of Corrections and counties is voluntary and will be paid through state funds, but will require counties to house prisoners serving terms more than 90 days and up to 180 days.

State officials say the diversion will reduce spending on corrections by $296 million over the next six years, but Catawba County officials say the change places a heavier burden on already limited resources and spoils strategic planning.

Currently, the county has some space in its jails, but not much, said Catawba County Sheriff Coy Reid.

At the detention center in Newton on Tuesday, there were 249 inmates in a facility with 269 beds. The Burke/Catawba jail is at capacity, Reid said, and out of the 80 beds Catawba County owns at the facility, it is using 51 and renting out the other 29 to Burke County.

“If the state called us today and said can you take 10 prisoners, we would have to say no,” Reid said. “You can’t take a chance on taking state prisoners when nine jurisdictions are bringing prisoners in. If we have beds available, we would house state prisoners, but if we don’t have those beds, then we can’t.”

Catawba County rents out the beds it doesn’t use to other governments.

At the detention center in Newton, about 20 beds are used to house federal prisoners. At the Burke/Catawba jail, 29 beds are rented to Burke County.

The process of renting jail beds to other governments is not a chance situation, and Catawba County Manager Tom Lundy said the practice is a product of good planning – something he said the newly passed legislation will ruin.

Lundy said when the county built the Catawba County Detention Center in Newton four years ago, they built larger at the time, knowing and publicly announcing they would rent empty beds to the federal government. Since the center opened in 2007, the revenue earned off rented beds has been set aside to help pay for the next jail expansion.

“We knew over time we would need more and more jail space,” Lundy said. “So we had that revenue from rented-out beds earmarked for future jail expansion. Doing that, you don’t have to finance that much in the future and it saves the taxpayer.”

The county doesn’t plan to expand the jail for five to eight years, but Lundy said as the state requires the county to hold more prisoners, the county may have to expand earlier – something that could cost the taxpayer more in the end.

“It’s been a process of very good planning. What complicates things is when the (General Assembly) makes the decision that undoes a lot of that,” Lundy said. “Cities and counties are creatures of the state, but it really interferes with good, solid planning. We build according to state standards. Then all of the sudden we are told, you are going to have to hold state prisoners for longer.”

Legislators say the law will reduce N.C. Department of Corrections spending by millions, and sponsor N.C. Rep. David Guice said the inmate diversion shouldn’t be a heavier burden.

“If someone will read the bill, they will see we are not forcing anything on the counties,” Guice said, adding that counties will participate in the misdemeanant diversion program voluntarily and with state funds.

Guice said the state has set aside about $30 million for counties that will house state misdemeanants. The misdemeanant diversion program has been approved, but it is currently being finalized, he said.

If a county has enough room to participate in the program, Guice said the state will rent the bed like other counties and the federal government does.

“From what I have seen, we will be able to pay more than or match what Catawba County is getting from other counties to house inmates,” Guice said. “If you are getting the same money or more, does that help you in the long run as it relates to building? I think it would.”

Guice said if no counties have room for the inmates, they come back to the state, who would also get money from the $30 million pot.

“No one is dumping inmates on the county,” Guice said. “If the inmates have to come back to the state, the state gets money from that confinement fund, too.”