With Mecklenburg County inmates sleeping on the floor, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory said the courts need to speed up prosecutions to move prisoners and ease crowding.
And he said some inmates who are out on bond wait so long for trial that Charlotte-Mecklenburg police end up rearresting them on new charges.
McCrory made his comments during a crime summit attended by mayors, Gov. Bev Perdue and top law enforcement officials, including judges and prosecutors.
“We're paying for more police officers to arrest people, and we don't have anywhere to put them,” he told the Observer.
Though it was a statewide summit, long-held tensions among some Mecklenburg officials over Charlotte crime seemed to resurface.
At the summit, a panel that included Mecklenburg District Attorney Peter Gilchrist fielded questions and comments, including those from McCrory.
Gilchrist said the court system wasn't designed for speed or “efficiency” and is an “adversarial one” meant to seek justice deliberately.
He recalled a program started this year by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Rodney Monroe that identifies “high-priority” candidates for tougher prosecution and longer sentences. It's meant to give prosecutors a heads-up about the worst of the worst out on the streets.
But defense lawyers are not necessarily on board and sometimes resist a rush to trial and stiffer punishment, Gilchrist said. “This is an adversarial system, and you have to know that.”
They all could agree, however, that funding for the state's criminal justice system, which is directed by lawmakers out of Raleigh, has been sorely lacking for years.
McCrory, a Republican who lost a bid for governor last year and says he won't seek re-election as mayor, has complained for years that Charlotte gets short shrift on state funding. Mecklenburg lawmakers have echoed the theme.
Formulas used for doling out money to counties for statewide initiatives don't take into account the size of Charlotte, say McCrory and the lawmakers.
Gilchrist, a Democrat who has held the DA's office for 34 years, and others said funding shortcomings have made it difficult to process cases quickly.
“You spend money on the Police Department to bring in more cases,” he said. “But if the courts can't respond, then we're the bottleneck in the system.”
Charlotte is using federal stimulus dollars to hire 50 police officers this fall. And the City Council voted this week to use money originally slated to resurface roads to help pay for an additional 75 officers.
John Smith, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts in Raleigh, said there are 270 prosecutor vacancies statewide, and that programs directing young offenders into treatment are being cut.
The daylong crime summit convened Friday morning against the backdrop of a continuing state budget crisis.
Gov. Perdue, a Democrat in her first term, ordered an additional 5 percent across-the-board cut two weeks ago from state agencies, including the court system. Her decree came just a week after she signed the $19 billion state budget that already sliced about $2 billion and included $1 billion in new taxes.
Perdue spoke at the summit held in Salisbury's restored train depot. She touted her push to reduce probation officer caseloads and the money she directed to help offenders escape gang affiliation, including programs that help medically remove their gang tattoos. “It's a whole plethora of little fixes,” she told the crowd.
She asked the audience to pressure lawmakers to increase court budgets. “I need you to buttonhole legislators in your state and say, ‘You have to cough it up.'” she said.
As of this week, up to 200 inmates were sleeping on the floor of the Mecklenburg County jail, said Julia Rush, spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office, which runs the facility. Last summer, there were about 500 sleeping on the floor, she said.
To relieve crowding, the Sheriff's Office runs an electronic monitoring program for about 80 low-level offenders awaiting trial, she said. There are other pretrial release programs for offenders who can show they have jobs or meet other qualifications. The county also recently moved more than 100 minimum-security inmates into a new 320-bed Jail Annex unit in north Charlotte.
County commissioners are expected to get an update Tuesday on a new jail project that would add about 1,700 beds to the current 2,300-bed capacity and could be done in about five years, Rush said.