Buncombe County, North Carolina

Summary

Buncombe County encompasses the Asheville metropolitan area located in the mountainous Western North Carolina region. The county has a long history of implementing strategies to divert and better serve individuals with behavioral health and substance abuse issues cycling through the system. Buncombe County is home to four specialty courts, seven diversion programs, and numerous interventions that address criminogenic needs and provide access to services to justice-involved people. Despite efforts to safely manage the jail population, the county’s pretrial population grew 14.9%, from 309 to 355 between 2015 and 2017.

In 2018, Buncombe County was awarded $1.75 million from the Safety and Justice Challenge to build on past efforts and address the main drivers of the local jail population. Key strategies that focus on the front-end of the local justice system include deflection at arrest and booking, diverting individuals to behavioral health and substance abuse treatment, enhancing pretrial services, and increasing efficiencies in case processing. These strategies are complemented by approaches aimed at reducing racial and ethnic disparities, improving data integration, and enhancing community engagement in the local justice system.

  • Despite significant diversion efforts by Buncombe County and its partners, jail population numbers have risen to historically high levels. Data suggests that the female jail population will exceed capacity as soon as 2020.
  • Pretrial defendants and length of stay are main drivers of the jail population. In 2017, 64.9% of the jail population were pretrial defendants, spending an average of 13 days in jail.
  • An estimated 38% of the jail population has been identified as having a mental health issue. Individuals with mental health issues who enter the county’s jail spend an average of 30 days longer in pretrial detention than other defendants.
  • The impact of jail use takes an especially heavy toll on people of color. Despite making up 6.4% of the local population, African-Americans make up 26% of the jail population, on average.
  • Detention causes disruption in the stability of arrestees’ families and communities; leads to higher re-arrest rates; and produces worse case outcomes, including future episodes of detention.

 

  • To continue reducing the jail population safely, the county plans to implement four key strategies aimed at addressing system inefficiencies and disparities, meeting the needs of those with behavioral health and substance abuse issues, and instituting non-jail options for lower-risk offenders.
  • Strategies include deflection at arrest and booking, diverting individuals to behavioral health and substance abuse treatment, enhancing pretrial services, and improvements to case processing efficiency.
  • Key strategies and initiatives to create a safer, more effective system include:
    • Implementing a standardized risk assessment at the magistrate level;
    • Enhancing support for the detention facility’s most familiar faces; and
    • Implementing a bail alert report for individuals in custody to notify criminal justice system actors when individuals in custody are due for a bond review.
  • These key strategies will be complemented by three supportive strategies aimed at reducing racial and ethnic disparities, improving data integration, and enhancing community engagement in the local justice system.

Supported with $1.75 million from the Safety and Justice Challenge, Buncombe County and its partners will implement forward-looking, smart solutions to reduce the local jail population by 15 percent over the next two years.

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