A study by a team of N.C. Central University researchers concluded that even though the number of people in custody at the Durham County jail had decreased between 2014 and 2019, they are being locked up for a longer time.

The NCCU researchers found that while admissions to the jail had declined by 25 percent over the study period, the average length of time in custody increased by 24 percent. 

Made public this month, the report, Understanding Trends in the Jail Population in Durham, North Carolina, 2014-2019,  was done in partnership with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Its analysis is based on data accumulated during the tenure of the county’s former district attorney, Roger Echols, who was first elected in 2014 and left office in 2019 when he was defeated the year before by current district attorney Satana Deberry.

Deberry campaigned on a promise to fundamentally change the way the county’s criminal justice system operates by addressing mass incarceration, jail overcrowding, and racial disparities. She told the INDY this week that while most of the study period in the report did not take place during her tenure, the NCCU researchers’ findings are in line with her office’s goal of focusing on serious offenses.

“In a system focused on violence, we would expect to see longer stays and higher bonds for serious cases, with fewer admissions for lower-level cases,” Deberry said in an email to the INDY.

The decline in the jail’s population during the study period “is good news and makes a tremendous difference in the lives of Durham residents,” Deberry said. “Most people come in contact with the criminal legal system because of minor, non-violent offenses, and detaining them pretrial away from their jobs and families can do more harm than good for our community.”

On the other hand, Deberry added that everyone in jail is not awaiting their day in court for the resolution of their case.

“Some individuals are serving misdemeanor sentences, haven’t been transferred to prison yet post-conviction, or are being held on detainers related to federal prosecutions,” the DA explained about factors that could affect the average length of time someone spends in jail. “We are seeing more individuals being held post-conviction or on detainers recently. Other factors … include seriousness of the offense, an individual’s prior criminal record and how long it takes to resolve a case.”

NCCU’s research team points to another likely reason for folk spending more time in jail: crime and law enforcement’s response to violent crime. The researchers point to data showing that Durham’s crime rate is higher than state and national averages. The study also determined that violent felonies were “the least frequent admissions type” into the detention center and “remained below eight percent across all years of the study period.”

Not surprisingly, “Individuals charged with violent felonies were also more likely to spend more than 90 or more days in jail,” the study found. “Lastly, those who were admitted to jail in the past three years were more likely to spend more than 90 days in jail.”

Deberry noted that the report indicates the decline in the jail population has been fueled by an across the board reluctance among judicial officials to put someone in jail for minor, non-violent offenses. In early 2019, Deberry and county judges adopted new pretrial release policies.

“The DA’s Office policy, which guides the recommendations prosecutors make to judges, discourages the use of money bail and pretrial detention in cases where public safety is not at risk,” Deberry said. 

Deberry noted that when the pandemic began, her office partnered with defense attorneys and judges to safely reduce the jail population to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

NCCU researchers found that in 2014, the detention center’s average daily population of 521 people was down to 423 in 2019.

Deberry said by the jail’s daily population average reached a low-point of 240 by July of last year, months after the onset of the pandemic. The district attorney added that the jail’s current population, which includes people being held post-conviction and on felony charges “has gradually returned to pre-pandemic levels.”   

The researchers also found the county’s Black residents accounted for a disproportionate percentage of the jail’s inmates. African Americans make up about 37 percent of Durham’s population, but accounted for just under 70 percent of all jail admissions during the study period and consumed well over 70 percent of the beds used. By comparison, Whites make up about 43 percent of the population, and about 16 percent of jail admissions. Black people were also on average spending more time behind bars at the county jail.

“In 2019, Black people spent an average of almost 3.5 more days in jail compared to white people,” NCCU researchers reported.

“That’s a very big question,” Deberry replied when asked about the over-representation of Black people at the county jail.

“In the most immediate sense it is driven by racial disparities in arrests,” she said. “More broadly though it is driven by long-term disinvestment in Black communities and systemic racism in our laws and criminal legal system.”

Deberry pointed to the N.C. Central research, which notes that racial disparities in the jail population remained “fairly consistent” during the study period despite declines in admissions.

“This is concerning,” Deberry said, “and suggests a need for policy changes that directly address racial disparities.”

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.