Report: Jail population down sharply

UCL-corrections patch-CUNION COUNTY — If the Union County Freeholder Board was looking for a reason not to outsource operations at the jail, they may have found one last week.

The board heard an up to date accounting of how the jail is doing from Marie VanNostrand, a project manager with Luminosity, the consulting firm hired by the county for $158,000. According to her report, the company managed to find ways to reduce inmate population by 19 percent, which was lauded by the board at their meeting last week.

Although last week LocalSource went into how Jail Director Brian Riordan hit the ground running applying his “back to basics” approach to turning jail breaks and lack of oversight around, VanNostrand was the facilatator of reducing inmate population.
The project manager reflected back to 2010, showing there were over 1,000 inmates in the jail on any given day. In 2011, despite continued efforts, this average daily number still remained over 1,000. But after an assessment was done by Luminosity staff, it became apparent, VanNostrand said, that the judicial system was playing a role in keeping the average daily inmate level high.

“Based on how long inmates stay, the greatest opportunity to improve overcrowding is through the judicial system,” the consultant pointed out.

Specifically, she added, if the average length of stay for an inmate was reduced to 46 days from 55, VanNostrand projected that the average daily population would go down to 853 inmates.

Getting there, though, would take work by everyone associated with the judicial system, not an easy task, but one VanNostrand said was achievable. So Luminosity moved forward, followed by willing county participants who were looking for a way to solve the overcrowding problem.

VanNostrand told the board they began by building an infrastructure for improvements, using a computer software system that was available for the court system.

“This allowed anyone, anytime to very easily access [the system] to see how many inmates were in the jail, what they were there for and how long they had been there,” she said.

Part of the problem that was immediately evident was the courts, public defenders, prosecutors and others
could not easily access information valuable to all stakeholders.

“Then the courts, public defenders office, probation, jail and law enforcement got together to see how we could make the system more efficient,” VanNostrand said.

One of the first things the project manager did was recommend several initiatives, such as using a “recall” judge, or one who was retired, to handle all the backed up criminal cases that have longstanding inmates in the jail.

VanNostrand also suggested that a modified trial schedule be put in place so things operated more efficiently and had less downtime. VanNostrand said “downtime” caused considerable backup of trials.

“This was prioritized for inmates in custody,” she said, using a committee set up specifically to manage longterm inmates who had been in jail for more than a year.

Increasing attorney-client access also showed success because public defenders and attorneys were able to log onto a computer and see who came into the jail overnight instead of there being a time lapse. In some cases, these time lapses, VanNostrand explained, left inmates lingering for weeks in the jail without seeing an attorney or public defender because they simply did not know or they were not notified that they were there.
Status conferences also aided in speeding up an inmates stay because all stakeholders could access the program and immediately see what inmates had been in the jail for more than 60 days. They also could find out any detail they needed, such as who was on a $5,000 or less bail bond.

This information was critical since many inmates, the project manager said, were incarcerated much longer than need be prior to arraignment.

“By using the software, we could generate a list of inmates and find out why the case wasn’t moving,” she told the board.

“The prosecutors office was terrific in meeting with police departments to explain when it is appropriate to issue summons for certain types of offenses, opposed to a warrant,” VanNostrand said, adding this all went back to things they did in prior years, things they lost track of like monitoring how many continuances, or delays of trials, there were on the books.

More importantly, with the computer program monitoring system, stakeholders were able to identify inmates whose process through the judicial system was held up due to Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS, problems.

“All of this I have explained is a system coming together, knowing who is in the jail and coming together to track it all,” the project manager said, pointing out that this “really empowered the stakeholders to take action and they did.”

VanNostrand explained that within months the inmate daily population began to drop. For example, while in 2011 there were 1,117 daily average of inmates, in 2012 that number went down to 898 and this year it dropped to 827.

“The reason for that is simply length of stay,” she said, adding that “this has exceeded what I thought could be done.”
The drop in average daily population also had an effect on the jail budget, which saw $100,000 less needed in food last year and a $400,000 saving in medical care for inmates.

Freeholder Chris Hudak commented on the achievement, noting that it was “amazing.”
Freeholder Dan Sullivan was also proud of what had been accomplished at the jail that a few short years ago was an embarrassment.
“I find it remarkable that getting everyone on the same page when there are so many pieces to the puzzle, almost letting the right hand know what the left is doing,” he told VanNostrand.

Riordan pointed out that this was not an easy accomplishment, considering the odds against them.
“We achieved this reduction in jail population while we were coping with the highest judicial vacancy in the state,” said the jail director, adding “we were able to grease the wheels of the judicial system.”

VanNostrand agreed that indeed headway had been made but said “judicial time is still a big barrier.”