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Grant Funds Final Year of County Jail Depopulation Project

County says collaboration and data collection up but concrete results remain elusive

A housing unit inside one of North Carolina's county jails
A housing unit inside one of North Carolina’s 109 county jails. (Photo by Rachel Crumpler)

Mecklenburg County Criminal Justice Services announced in a news release Tuesday that it will receive an additional $228,000 grant to further its efforts toward safely reducing the local jail population while addressing inequities in the justice system, a project that it has been undertaking for seven years. 

The added grant marks a total of $3.87 million invested into Mecklenburg County from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of the Safety and Justice Challenge. The multi-million dollar project is part of a national effort to reduce the misuse and overuse of jails and eliminate racial inequity in local criminal justice systems across 34 states.

The program supports local criminal justice systems in implementing solutions to enhance services provided to defendants pretrial and addressing system inefficiencies.

In its final year of participation in the grant program, Mecklenburg County Criminal Justice Services has pledged to “maintain key practices to carry forward the successes achieved during the Safety and Justice Challenge” with community collaborations and input from its Community Engagement Task Group and the Youth Leadership Board.

Mecklenburg County’s Criminal Justice Services and Criminal Justice Advisory Group also partnered with New York State Psychiatric Institute to create an Implicit Bias training program for criminal justice professionals in 2017, though they are not mandatory and it’s still unclear whether the training is effective.

“The progress so far shows a significant culture change in data-driven collaboration, one that can revolutionize local justice system processes,” the release read. 

“We are honored to have received this support from the MacArthur Foundation to advance our work through data-driven process changes as well as elevating our community engagement to ensure all voices are heard,” Mecklenburg County Criminal Justice Services director Sonya L. Harper stated in the release. “I am proud of the County’s work and the MacArthur support has transformed our data abilities so all partners can use the information to improve our system.”

Mecklenburg County, saw an 11% reduction in jail population from 2014 to 2017, according to Mecklenburg County Criminal Justice Services, but an analysis of data from January 2020 to December 2022 indicated African Americans and Hispanics still make up 82% of the jail population despite accounting for around 47% of the local population.

The data also showed pretrial release and length of stay as main drivers of the jail population with the pretrial jail population making up 68% of the total average daily population. 

“Communities participating in the Safety and Justice Challenge have generated meaningful changes in their local justice systems,” MacArthur Foundation director of criminal justice Laurie Garduque stated.

“They were ambitious in setting their goals, and I am filled with a sense of hope when I look back on the Safety and Justice Challenge and the impact we have seen,” Garduque continued. “We are proud of SJC grantee partners and their accomplishments, especially their resilience in response to the pandemic. This initiative was designed to be a foundational starting point for long-term criminal justice reform, and it is heartening to see its legacy unfolding in real time.”

Read more: Insufficient Oversight Allows Dangerous Conditions in NC Jails

As of 2021, North Carolina had the fourth highest prison budget in the country and second most state prison facilities, according to the National Institute of Corrections. That despite the fact that, after a four-year increase from 2013-’17, North Carolina’s saw a dramatic fall in general prison admissions from 2019 to 2021, mostly due to the effects of the pandemic and changes in arrest and jail practices, court shutdowns, and court slowdowns, according to a Department of Public Safety report.

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