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Fewer prisoners are calling the Beaufort County Detention Center home these days, a trend county officials say is the result of faster prosecution.
Arrest numbers have remained similar to last year, officials say, but for the first time in years, the county jail is under capacity.
On Tuesday morning, the jail had 205 prisoners. It was built to house 255.
If the trend holds for the rest of the year, the detention center's population will drop to levels not seen since 2006, jail director Phillip Foot said.
"It's good -- the staff needed a change," Foot said. ""What we wanted to do was take a close look at the programs before we put money into building additions or new buildings."
The jail has experienced times in recent years when its population was twice its capacity.
Beaufort County officials attribute the reduced levels to changes this year in the county's Circuit Court and the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office, which are bringing career criminals and repeat-offenders to trial faster.
Prisoners in the jail are typically awaiting trial, and if convicted, will be moved to state prison in most instances. Faster prosecution reduces the overall population, said Duffie Stone, 14th Circuit Court solicitor.
To speed up prosecution, the two weeks of Circuit Court each month were consolidated into one week, allowing two judges to operate in two courtrooms simultaneously. The solicitor's office also formed three teams of attorneys to prepare cases for prosecution faster. It also created the Career Criminal Prosecution Team in January, which consists of three veteran prosecutors expected to bring major cases to trial every month.
So far in 2009, solicitors have prosecuted 3,730 cases, 1,087 more than during the next best year, 2006, when 2,643 cases were tried.
Stone said a decrease in the number of prisoners is the result of cooperation between his office and the Beaufort County Council, a major partner in funding the Career Criminal Prosecution Team.
The team targets violent and repeat offenders and works to send their cases to trial quickly.
The team prosecuted 13 cases in the first quarter of 2009. It won convictions in 12 of them. Stone said the team has helped reduce the judicial backlog by streamlining the process for all of his trial teams and cutting down the number of prisoners awaiting trial.
"This time last year, we had a very bad situation in the detention center with roughly 125 people waiting on trials," Stone said. "So we took an analysis of who these prisoners were, and roughly 50 percent of them were career offenders."
And with the consolidated Circuit Court, judges can simultaneously conduct trials and take guilty pleas, as opposed to the previous one-judge system in which the court's other business slowed whenever there was a trial, he said. Beginning in January, two weeks of Circuit Court was streamlined into one, allowing two judges to operate in two courtrooms, instead of hearing cases at separate times each month.
It also has resulted in fewer citizens being called for jury duty.
"With jury picks on Monday, nothing else would get done," Stone said. "So now we have two courtrooms running at the same time every month. It's also cheaper for the county because they only have to bring in one jury panel per month."
<strong>MORE JAIL SPACE STILL NEEDED?</strong>
When the jail opened in 1992, officials projected it would handle the county's needs through 2020.
At the end of August 2008, the jail was packed, setting a one-day record of 469 prisoners, Foot said.
"When you get 400-plus people in here, it's really pushing it," Foot said. "Our disciplinary actions go up and our assaults rise. You can feel the tension."
The average daily prisoner population so far this year has been 283, down from 366 in 2008.
Since Dec. 19, the jail has operated at roughly 91 percent of capacity, he said.
Meanwhile, the number of arrests this year has remained comparable to past years, and Foot said he expects the final number of people booked into the jail to be about 7,300. Last year, 7,536 were booked.
Overcrowding at the jail is not a new issue. County officials have been trying to figure out how to accommodate more prisoners for years.
Foot said one of the most telling signs the jail is stretched to its limits is in the gymnasium, which often has been used to house prisoners. Prisoners once slept on mattresses on the floor, but last year the jail added 22 bunk beds and tables to create more order, he said.
Officials have proposed building a unit to house misdemeanor offenders, deadbeat dads and other prisoners who are able to work during the day but are required to sleep at the jail.
County administrator Gary Kubic said the sluggish economy has made it difficult for the county to discuss any upgrades, but eventually jail expansion will be needed.
Kubic said the detention center building was designed to accommodate additions, but the reduced prisoner population has given the county some breathing room.
"We have an opportunity now that things are slower to institute changes," he said. "We learned that we could look inside and improve systems, which appears to be working. But it's a good time to plan and prepare for the future."