The Howard County jail is creeping back up to pre-COVID-19 levels as inmates return behind bars.
This spring, around 100 inmates were released from the jail to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, reducing the population from around 460 to 363. Now, the jail’s population has risen to 429, well exceeding the 364-bed capacity. This marks an increase from last year when the average inmate population was 384.
Superior Court I Judge William Menges said that if the jail population continues to trend upward, alternative solutions need to be found.
“At some point, if this trend continues, they’re going to have to add capacity to the jail, or the alternative is to find alternative sentences to reduce the population,” Menges said. “One of the things that we’ve done that has been very effective is to create a work release program. There’s roughly 80 people who are not in the Howard County jail who would otherwise be in the jail because of their work release.”
However, Menges cited the lack of a female work release program as one of the contributing factors to the higher jail population. A female work release program has been a sore subject for the county since 2016 when a grant of $1.2 million in funding was left untouched because the old jail on Berkley Road, which eventually was renovated for the work release program anyway, was deemed unfit.
After leaving the $1.2 million on the table, the county procured funding for the work release facility later, though it was significantly less at $608,000. Because of that, organizers decided to take a multi-phase approach to opening the facility, starting with initially opening a men’s wing with plans to open a women’s wing later. That has yet to happen.
As for the jail, Superior Court III Judge Doug Tate said it’s meant to serve as a “waystation” for inmates until the courts have processed their cases. Afterward, they are either released or go to the Department of Corrections if their jail time is set to be greater than what the Howard County jail calls for.
“We need to make sure that people understand the jail is really intended as kind of a waystation, if you will, not a final destination for the individuals that are going through the systems,” he said.
Tate said reducing a high jail population comes down to, in part, judges staying on top of their cases.
“It just takes a review of what you have out there, and make sure you manage those cases that you set,” Tate said. “You don’t want to have someone in jail on some B misdemeanor, some public intoxication, and they’re out there for 20 to 30 days without having at least a preliminary hearing to find out what we need to do with these folks.”
As of Friday, there were 12 people in the jail for misdemeanor charges only. Six were sentenced, and six were pre-sentenced.
Although Tate acknowledged that the inmate population was higher than desired, he wasn’t overly concerned, as it was expected after COVID-19 restrictions lifted.
“When COVID hit, we were able to get the jail numbers down, but we’re seeing that snap back a bit. And we’re seeing those numbers rise,” Tate said. “It’s a concern, but I don’t think we’re at a panic mode yet. I don’t think we’re at our highest level, but because of the COVID issue, we would like to see those numbers a little less. I don’t know that we’re at a panic mode as far as where we’re at with the jail population, but I think we’re at a place where we, as judges, need to take a look and make sure that we’re processing and getting individuals through the system as quickly as possible.”
In 2018, the average jail population was 440. In 2017, it was at 442.