Fewer people were sent to the Durham County Jail, but on average, they stayed there longer, a new report released Thursday found.
And Black people were admitted to the jail at higher rates and stayed longer than white people, the study found.
The report, by researchers at N.C. Central University, is part of a national research project at the Data Collaborative for Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
It looked at jail data from 2014 to 2019, finding that while overall admissions decreased, the average time individuals spent incarcerated rose from nearly 15 days in 2014 to over 18 days in 2019.
Jails are designed as short-term holding facilities. Most people in them are awaiting trial and have not been found guilty.
While the majority of people are released in a day or two, those who can’t afford bail or are not eligible for it can end up staying much longer.
Some people were held for a year or longer, though they made up less than 1% of the people sent to the Durham jail. But that number nearly doubled over the years of the study, researchers found.
Researchers said a higher jail population costs taxpayers more money and heightens the impact of incarceration on people and communities.
“In the local community, there’s a real vested interest in more progressive ways of reducing crime,” said lead study author Lorraine Taylor, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Institute at NCCU.
The study period does not contain data from the past two years, which saw significant changes to jails due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a surge in local shootings.
“There’s a lot happening here in Durham,” Taylor said. “The trends related to violent crime and the jail population have to be considered in conjunction with what else is going on in this community.”
Erica Bond, vice-president of social justice initiatives at John Jay College, said the report could help broaden conversations about reducing jail populations.
“So much of the focus in recent years has been: ‘How do we reduce enforcement?’” she said. “But then there are these other issues, like people returning to jail more than once, or folks who are staying for longer periods of time, even for the same crimes.”
How lengths of stay changed
People charged with more violent crimes saw bigger increases in lengths of stay.
Stays for violent felony charges rose 33% between 2014 and 2019, while those for misdemeanor rose just 5%.
The average stay for non-violent felonies dropped by about 10%, but those for traffic violations more than doubled to over six days in 2019.
Though they made up just 17% of the jail population, people sentenced to serve time in the jail saw their stays increase by more than 60%, according to the report.
Still, Durham’s average jail stay was lower than in St. Louis, Missouri, and Louisville, Kentucky, where additional studies were conducted.
Rising bail, high rates of people returning to jail
Researchers said average bail costs rose by about $2,500 during the study period, peaking at just over $10,000 in 2016 before declining to nearly $9,600 in 2019.
And high bail costs led to longer stays, according to the report.
District Attorney Satana Deberry, who was elected in 2018 on promises of criminal justice reforms, changed internal policy for bail in early 2019.
The goal was to see fewer people charged with lesser, non-violent offenses have to pay cash bail to get out of jail, The N&O reported.
The jail population was also driven by people returning to jail after release.
Two out of every three people admitted in 2014 returned to jail at least once by the end of 2019, while some returned as many as eight or more times, researchers said.
“That raises some questions,” Bond said. “The fact that they’re returning might be an indicator that the system is not working that well.”
“So maybe it’s worth digging in to understand why people are being readmitted,” she added, “whether those are substance abuse issues, housing issues, all kinds of issues that may drive criminal justice system contact.”
Report finds racial disparities in admissions, lengths of stay
On average, Black people stayed in jail nearly three and a half days more than white people, according to the report.
In 2014, Black people in the jail stayed around 16 days on average, but that rose to more than 20 days by 2019.
Overall, researchers found Black people were over-represented in the jail compared to the county’s demographics. They accounted for 69% of jail admissions over the study period, despite making up only 37% of the population.
White people, who make up 43% of Durham’s population, accounted for just 16% of jail admissions, the report said.
They averaged just over 17 day stays in 2019.
Bond said similar racial disparities were found in other communities.
She hopes the report can help “inform a dialogue about how we address race in the criminal justice system.”
But with policy reforms and other changes over the past two years, researchers said further study is needed.
“This is not a one-off report,” Bond said. “We would encourage every community to dig into data around both enforcement trends and jail trends.”
“Without looking at this data, it’s really hard to make good, data-informed policy choices,” she added.
The Durham Report
Calling Bull City readers! We've launched The Durham Report, a free weekly digest of some of the top stories for and about Durham published in The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. Get your newsletter delivered straight to your inbox every Thursday at 11 a.m. featuring links to stories by our local journalists. Sign up for our newsletter here. For even more Durham-focused news and conversation, join our Facebook group "The Story of my Street."