Sheriffs want more say over jail inspections. Now there’s a provision in NC’s budget

·4 min read
Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.com

The state budget bill that won initial approval in the N.C. House and Senate Thursday includes a provision that a top advocate for people with disabilities says would harm the state’s efforts to keep county jails safe and secure.

The provision gives sheriffs the right to appeal if the state Department of Health and Human Services find their jails out of compliance during its twice annual inspections. The department often finds issues during these inspections ranging from poor supervision of inmates to unsanitary conditions.

Luke Woollard, an attorney for Disability Rights North Carolina, said the legislation would slow the state’s ability to correct safety risks to inmates. An appeal would push the findings before an administrative law judge, which could delay fixes for weeks.

He said it also looks like a backdoor way to resist new rules passed two years ago to improve safety and security in the state’s jails.

“In a technical way, it takes the teeth out of DHHS’s ability to actually administer these rules, apply them to the jails, and regulate the jails,” Woollard said.

The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association had opposed some of those new rules and failed an attempt to scuttle them in the 2020 legislative session.

Eddie Caldwell, the association’s executive vice president and general counsel, said the legislation has nothing to do with the new rules. He said the association sought the legislation after spending years trying to persuade DHHS officials to allow for appeals.

He didn’t anticipate sheriffs would be routinely appealing inspection findings if the provision becomes law.

“I would say 98% of the cases, maybe 99, there’s no dispute between the jail and DHHS,” he said. “But there’s some cases where the dispute is dramatic and it has implications involving spending a lot of money or civil liability for the jail, or both.”

Some of those cases involve a situation where the fix would require costly renovation or construction, he said.

There are no fines for failed inspections, and enforcement only kicks in when the DHHS secretary considers the problems serious enough to threaten the closure of the jail.

When that happens, state law includes an appeal process in which county commissioners could seek an administrative law judge’s review. They also can appeal the case to the senior resident superior court judge.

Inspection provisions in a budget bill?

The inspection provision has little to do with the state’s annual spending plan. Good government advocates have decried such special provisions because they often draw little scrutiny in budget bills that are often hundreds of pages long.

This year, that lack of scrutiny is more pronounced because the Republican-led General Assembly wrote the budget bill behind closed doors as a conference report that was not heard in any committee and will not be subject to amendments. Both chambers are expected to vote on the 192-page bill Thursday afternoon.

Most of the state’s 100 sheriffs are Republican and are powerful, prominent officials in their counties.

Woollard said Disability Rights NC didn’t learn about the provision until the budget bill emerged.

That’s when state Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat, said she found out about it, and she criticized it on the House floor Thursday. She said it was a policy decision that shouldn’t be in the budget and would lead to “unsafe conditions for the people incarcerated in our jails.”

The provision mirrors legislation that passed the House last year in the form of House Bill 561 by a largely partisan 66-45 vote. Only one Democrat supported it. The legislation was then parked in the Senate Rules Committee, where it remains.

The bill’s chief sponsor was Rep. Dudley Greene, a McDowell County Republican and retired sheriff. Last year, Greene told Carolina Public Press he filed the legislation after disputing an inspection finding involving the jail he oversaw for a decade.

A DHHS spokeswoman told CPP then that the law would add a “significant strain” on the department’s resources.

DHHS has three employees who conduct the inspections. They also investigate dozens of deaths in the jails every year. Jail deaths have climbed each year in recent years, and in many of those deaths, DHHS inspectors have found supervision failures.

Staff writer Will Doran contributed to this report.

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