By Sally Kestin and Jason Sandford, AVL Watchdog
Coronavirus has led to dramatic changes in crime and justice in Asheville, from the courtroom to the cop on the street.
Reported crimes are down, police are making fewer arrests and inmates are being sprung from jail.
And the criminal justice system of the future may bear little resemblance to pre-Covid-19 with lawyers in masks, social distancing in the courtroom and an excuse to get out of jury duty that could apply to a sizable portion of the population. Pre-existing conditions and even age could be a legitimate reason not to serve.
The impact may last well past the pandemic and could finally achieve a long-heralded reform: converting the county jail from a holding pen for the poor to a lockup reserved for serious offenders.
“I will be challenging everyone within the judiciary… are we really committed to do it?” said Buncombe Sheriff Quentin Miller. “I think we can. We’ve proved that we can.”
Times of economic distress typically lead to an increase in crime, but Asheville’s criminals may be staying home, too. Charges for common crimes such as assault, drug offenses, breaking and entering, and theft declined in April compared to last year, statistics from the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office show. Stolen vehicles were up slightly as were violations of domestic violence orders.
Overall, crime has trended significantly downward, as it has across much of the U.S.
Criminal cases filed in North Carolina courts dropped by 57 percent from mid-March to the week ending April 25, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts. In Buncombe, cases were down by nearly half.
“I suspect it’s because people are staying home,” said M. LeAnn Melton, Buncombe’s chief public defender.
Buncombe District Attorney Todd Williams said law enforcement is “really just trying to enforce and investigate the more serious matters.”
“Right now, it may appear there’s a [crime] reduction,” Williams said. “Is it police prioritizing things? Is it because people are social-distancing, they’re not out and about?”
The pandemic has altered the way law enforcement in Buncombe respond to crime with officers and deputies taking certain reports by phone. And they’re working to keep some people out of jail.
Low-level, non-violent crimes that used to require being booked at the detention center and the possibility of a cost-prohibitive bond — a hurdle that kept many low-income inmates locked up — are now handled with a citation to appear in court. Offenses such as felonies, domestic violence and drunk driving still result in an arrest.
“Our message to our deputies is that if we can cite a person as opposed to arrest them, that’s paramount,” Miller said.
Those changes have had a dramatic impact, cutting the number of inmates booked into the Buncombe jail by nearly half since mid-March compared to the same timeframe last year.
“As we issue these citations, we’ll have to see if people do in fact return for their court appearance, or do we have to issue a warrant?” said Asheville Police Chief David Zack. “If we see a good response to the citations, that can be a game-changer for us and the way we do business.”
Jails have been hotspots for the spread of the virus in other places. Just as law enforcement in Buncombe has worked to keep people from entering the jail, judges are trying to minimize the risk by releasing inmates.
“We’ve got people in jail with non-violent crimes like trespassing, writing bad checks, drinking on city property, or having missed a previous court date,” said Calvin Hill, Buncombe County’s chief District Court judge. “When you balance those charges against the possibility of death or serious illness, it was a pretty easy decision to say, ‘Let’s get as many people out as we can.’ ”
The jail’s daily inmate population dropped from about 530 to 350. The largest portion of the reduction is in people who hadn’t been convicted of a crime but were awaiting trial and couldn’t afford to post bail.
Melton’s public defenders have been advocating for affordable bonds for arrestees deemed safe for release. “It should not depend on whether you’re wealthy as to whether or not you get out of custody,” she said. “I’m hoping that continues and I think it will.”
The sheriff, district attorney and others have been calling for many of these reforms for years, and Buncombe County received a $1.75 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 2018 to reduce the jail population.
But before Covid-19, “it was almost like taking baby steps,” Miller said.
“We felt like we were pushing a big rock up the hill because we really have embraced a lot of this thinking, but we weren’t seeing much progress on jail population reduction,” Williams said.
The jail had been approaching its 604-bed capacity, even prompting discussion by the county of building a new one. But that won’t be necessary now, Miller said. He would like to see the population reduced even more, down to 250.
Miller and others in Buncombe’s judicial system are hopeful that the changes spurred by the pandemic will endure. That will depend largely on whether the current trend in crime continues.
“In normal circumstances, if the economy turned bad…the intuitive prediction would be, ‘Oh you’re going to see a spike,’ ” Williams said. “If that doesn’t occur…maybe the court system was overutilizing the use of jail resources, and fewer people need to be housed there for shorter periods of time.”
Masks in court
Jury trials and traffic court have been suspended at least until June 1, but the Buncombe courthouse remains open, trying to do business in a pandemic world.
“The majority of the people in the courthouse right now are wearing masks,” Melton said.
Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Alan Thornburg switched courtrooms to one with remote video technology. “There’s been some discussion of equipping more courtrooms with recording devices and large-screen video,” he said.
In District Court Judge Julie Kepple’s “sobriety court,” in-person check-ins were key “because connection is so attached to addiction,” she said.
“Now we have Zoom conferences with these folks, one-on-one,” she said. “I’m asking them, ‘How’s the job? What are you struggling with?’ ”
Offenders on probation must prove they’re not using drugs. That used to require regular trips to the courthouse’s 15th floor for an in-person urine test. Now court officers drive to the probationers’ homes, drop a swab in their mailboxes and watch from their vehicles as they mop their cheeks, repackage the swabs and leave them for the officers to pick up, Kepple said.
Kepple’s court has also increased the use of smart-phone breath-alcohol monitors. The devices are set to call at random times, and probationers must answer and blow into a tube connected to the phone.
“Yes,” the judge said, “things have changed.”
Adaptation for the future poses even more challenges. Jury selection of the past involved assembling up to 100 people in a room. Potential jurors now may be divided into smaller groups, and the pool may need to be larger if more people are eliminated based on fears of exposure to the virus.
Jurors with high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma or any of the other high-risk preconditions could be excused or deferred to a later date, said Steven Cogburn, Buncombe County’s clerk of Superior Court. Even having a relative at home with one of those conditions could be cause for exclusion. As could age. People 65 and over are at risk of more severe illness from Covid-19.
“We just need to make sure that it doesn’t have unexpected consequences of the types of jurors we get,” Cogburn said. “We want to get a good cross-section of people.”
One option may be remote jury selection, Williams said.
“You might receive a call. ‘Do you have access to a computer? Could you make yourself available in the next 5 minutes,’ ” he said, “and then we could remotely patch you into the courtroom.”
Melton hopes that doesn’t happen. “I think that in-person contact is so important to be able to judge whether or not that juror is the right juror, whether or not they could be fair to both sides. I wouldn’t want to do that by video.”
Courtrooms will have to be reconfigured. Jury boxes and deliberation rooms are not big enough to keep 12 jurors six feet apart.
“If there’s going to be a jury trial,” Cogburn said, “I don’t know how they will do that without some strict adhesion to masks and gloves and sanitizing your hands, at least for the near future.”
Reconfiguring traffic court is another challenge. Previously held one week a month to resolve speeding tickets and other traffic offenses, the court sessions could draw more than 1,000 people a day.
If they were required to line up at six-foot intervals, “that would be from the courthouse to Vance Monument,” Williams said. “If the weather’s not good, there’s going to be a lot of unhappy people.”
One solution is spreading out the sessions throughout the month and resolving more cases without the need to appear in person.
“I think more hearings can be done online and more things can be done remotely,” Williams said. “We don’t need everybody who has a 12-mph speeding ticket to come down to the courthouse and ask for a speed reduction or a dismissal.”
Many more court functions could be handled online if not for the court system’s arcane record-keeping system dating to the early 1980s.
“Everything is on paper, in paper files that have to be trucked around the courthouse, moved in these metal bins from courtroom to courtroom,” Williams said. “A clerk is scribbling in pencil on a docket that gets Xeroxed and sent over to the jail so the jail can figure out who to release at the end of the day…. So much of it requires the physical presence of people in the courtroom.”
The state is upgrading court technology in each county, but Buncombe’s system will not be completed for about a year, Cogburn said.
“I never thought I’d be dealing with a challenge like this,” he said. “It’s just a matter of doing justice as best you can when you don’t have all the tools you need.”
AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter; Jason Sandford is a reporter and founder of Ashvegas.com. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.