Bass Connections Team Explores Need for Better Jail Data in North Carolina

“We can’t have any evidence-based solutions because we don’t have the evidence. We’re not able to gather and collect evidence. That’s why it’s very important that we have the data so that we can know what’s happening,” — A North Carolina criminal justice advocate on the need for a jail database, Report on the Utility of a North Carolina Jail Database.

By Annie Han

Local law enforcement and governments usually oversee their respective jails in the United States, making the system very divided with little oversight by state or federal entities. In North Carolina alone, there are 100 counties, 97 jails, and over 100,000 incarcerated people each year. This figure may be even greater due to the high frequency and short stays of people who cycle through the system.

Because the counties lack a standard system for data collection, it is difficult for policymakers to understand what injustices occur within their facilities and what resources these incarcerated individuals actually need for their various health issues. These issues were only exacerbated as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through these jails.

One of Duke University’s Bass Connections Teams, led by the Center’s Director Brandon Garrett, recently published their Report on the Utility of a North Carolina Jail Database. Their goal was to explore the necessity of a comprehensive system for jail data in North Carolina. The report details the team’s findings from their work during the 2020-2021 academic year.

“[Ruth Wygle and I] were really interested in jails,” said Catherine Grodensky, a PhD candidate at the Sanford School of Public Policy, and a leader on the team. “We wanted to learn more about commissions in jails and the people passing through, but we’ve both had the experience where there are not very good data on jails. Usually, you have all these questions you want to answer. You get some data, and there are a million problems with it. So, you can’t be certain you are answering the question you want to answer.”

The team started by conducting a review of the data collection efforts from all 50 US states and identifying the most well-developed from which to model their further analyses. They chose databases in California, Texas, and Colorado, which all routinely collect data due to various legislative bills and standardization efforts from each state.

They then split into two groups: one focused on the quantitative research, led by Ruth Wygle, a PhD candidate in Sociology; and the other focused on the qualitative research, led by Grodensky.

The quantitative team conducted analyses using the jail information from California, Texas, and Colorado to demonstrate the possible uses of a complete dataset. When looking at Colorado, they were able to track jail population changes during the COVID-19 pandemic based on how urban an area was. They could test the effectiveness of a policy in California, the Public Safety Realignment initiative, which aimed to reduce their jail populations. They also identified jails that were non-compliant with data reporting protocols in Texas and found trends where these jails were located based on income.

The qualitative team interviewed various stakeholders from North Carolina and the other model states: policymakers, healthcare providers, and jail administrators/staff. The interviewees were helpful in describing the types of data they need and the uses they would have for it. Their biggest requests were for accessible, quality data on demographics to identify disparities, especially in race and ethnicity, and on health.

Health issues often plague these facilities, but without comprehensive data, it is hard to know what resources are needed and where to distribute them. Here, respondents focused on a few conditions:

  • Mental illness, which is not only highly prevalent among incarcerated populations, but can also be worsened by the time spent in these facilities;
  • Opioid-use, which suffers from insufficient technology for screening inmates;
  • Pregnancy, which varies by county in its reliance on lab tests or self-reports, often keeping pregnancies undetected;
  • COVID-19, which was difficult to track because basic data on demographics, population counts, underlying health conditions, and symptoms were not available.

“There were a lot of different places where we could see that a lack of data made it more difficult to deal with COVID in these facilities,” said Grodensky. “Jails were struggling, and they were ready to talk about all the challenges that they had in managing COVID in their facilities. A lot of them had to do with the fact that they didn’t have access to who was in the jail, what medical conditions they had that might make them more susceptible to COVID or would make COVID more dangerous for them.”

An important issue the interviews highlight is insufficient funding for data collection. The lack of staffing, technology, and oversight makes the process of standardization particularly difficult, and compliance unlikely, especially for smaller jails in rural areas. These barriers must be dealt with in order to have more consistency.

From these findings, the Bass Connections team developed a few recommendations for North Carolina:

  • Require jails to report daily counts of sentenced and unsentenced populations immediately, as this information is some of the most basic and essential data for evaluating policies to reduce jail populations and for understanding jails’ responses to crises such as COVID-19. This information is already routinely reported to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services but is not made publicly available to other stakeholders in the state who need it for their work;
  • Require jails to report the most important demographic and health variables: race/ethnicity to understand systematic disparities in treatment behind bars; age and gender, for the purpose of understanding group-specific needs, and health variables including mental illness, opioid use and treatment, and pregnancy;
  • Provide funding to counties to support collection of valid data, particularly in under-resourced counties, and establish oversight mechanisms to increase compliance with data collection standards. Finally, the collected data should be made publicly available through a user-friendly, easy-to-understand online interface.

When deciding on these improvements, an important aspect the team considered was the feasibility of their implementation. It was necessary to build a proficient system that collected basic information and addressed important issues regarding jail populations such as overcrowding, race discrimination, and health problems. One state that they found particularly helpful for forming these recommendations was Florida.

“They have a very basic system that allows them to solve some good research questions and doesn’t require the moon and the stars in terms of policy,” said Grodensky. “They have had some setbacks and barriers that might be the case if we tried something overambitious.”

North Carolina’s disconnected system of jails creates large gaps in information that people throughout the criminal justice system need when making, enforcing, and advocating for various policies. As these jails also take on the increasingly heavy burden of caring for the medical needs of their populations, it is clear that they need more resources and data to better inform policy moving forward.

However, the process to improve data collection may be underway. According to Grodensky, she was recently contacted for an interview by the state to discuss the need for data collection in jails soon after this report was published.

Annie Han is an undergraduate student at Duke University working this semester with the Wilson Center for Science and Justice.