A Brief Foray into Criminal Charges

In the next few posts we will begin to explore what charges people are being held on in the Buncombe County jail. Before that, however, I want to give you a rough map to the system of criminal charges.

Crimes in North Carolina (and beyond) are broadly grouped into two categories, misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors are not as serious as felonies and have a maximum sentence of 150 days plus a possible fine. Felonies are more serious, with penalties ranging from fines and probation to prison terms up to life imprisonment or the death penalty.

In general, the specific penalties depend on the “class” of the crime. Misdemeanors start from class 3 (the least serious), followed by 2, 1 and A1 (the most serious and generally associated with violent offenses). On the felony end, there are nine classes. In order of increasing seriousness, they are I, H, G, F, E, D, C, B1, B2, and A (A felonies are all punishable by life imprisonment or death). Sentencing is complicated by consideration of things like criminal history or aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

That’s all pretty theoretical, so let’s look at some examples from the (as of today) 511 different charges that have been listed for people in jail since January. Keep in mind that these are just some randomly picked examples – you can download the latest full list of charges here.

At the lowest end, class 3 misdemeanors include things like possessing a small amount of marijuana, urinating in public, driving without a license, or disorderly conduct. Class 2 includes things like harassment, reckless driving and low-level fraud. Class 1 includes more serious drug possession charges, various kinds of low-level theft, and communicating threats. Finally, A1 misdemeanors are typically violent, primarily assault charges.

Felonies range from drug possession or low-level financial crimes (like stealing a credit card) at the low end through property crimes like burglary or arson, low-level drug trafficking and various kinds of assault to high-level trafficking and violent crimes like rape or murder.

Driving while impaired (DWI) charges are a special case – they have a separate sentencing rubric with a complicated system of levels and aggravating or mitigating factors, but in the analyses we will be doing we have simply mapped them to approximate misdemeanor or felony classes based on similarity of the actual punishment ranges.

Finally, there are charges that don’t fall into any of the categories above. Some are infractions rather than crimes, which means that they may involve fines but not jail. Another category is violation of pretrial or post-conviction conditions. These are not in themselves crimes, but can cause a person to be held in jail or prison. And some of the charges that show up on the jail website simply indicate that someone is being held on behalf of another agency such as the federal government. To keep things as simple as possible, most of the analyses will be based on the most serious charge, and we will simply exclude anyone being held after conviction or on behalf of another agency.

Even so, as you see, the whole thing can get pretty complicated. For a basic analysis, though, we can  think of the various classes above simply as a 14-point range from least to most serious: a class 3 misdemeanor charge is labeled as level 1, while first degree murder, an A felony, is level 14. You can find the full mapping in the table below. To aid in our analysis,, we will also classify each charge as violent, drug-related, or DWI-related, as appropriate [1].

In the next post we will do a basic analysis of the top charges people are held on in the Buncombe County jail.

[1] In selecting which charges to tag as violent, we follow the methodology employed in the Measuring Justice Dashboard from the UNC School of Government Criminal Justice Innovation Lab.

*Much of the analysis here and in future posts is based on daily early morning downloads of jail data from the Buncombe County Police to Citizen dashboard, starting on January 3, 2022. If you want to perform your own analysis or check my work, you may download the data from daily_bcdf_occupants.csv and daily_bcdf_occupant_charges.csv. These files are updated with the latest data each day. Names and docket numbers are not included, but the occupants and their charges are related by the id and defendant_id fields, respectively. Coded charges are also available in bcdf_charge_definitions.csv.

LevelMisdemeanor ClassLevelFelony Class
1Class 35Class I
2Class 26Class H
3Class 17Class G
4Class A18Class F
9Class E
10Class D
11Class C
12Class B2
13Class B1
14Class A
Mapping of Crime Class to Numeric Level

Who Is In Charge of the Criminal Legal System?

The last few posts have explored data about who is in jail in Buncombe County and how long they stay there. We will continue that exploration, but it’s important to have some context about the criminal legal system within which it occurs.

For one thing, the jail itself, which is run by the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, is uniquely not responsible for who is there or how long. If a magistrate says they are to be booked in, the jail must book them in, and they can’t let anyone out until a judge says so.

So who is actually in charge?

The picture most of us have of the criminal legal system looks very like a black box. We hear that “they got the guy,” assume that the guy they got is actually the right guy (which the legal system decidedly is not supposed to assume), and then forget about it from that point.

If we do think about it, we probably imagine a courtroom like we’ve seen on TV or in a movie with a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a jury, and a judge, with the judge obviously in charge. It’s a nice picture, but not at all how things really work. 

The real answer as to who is in charge may surprise you: nobody. 

To quote from the first chapter of a criminal law textbook:

…to speak of a criminal justice ‘system’ is something of a misnomer. To be sure, the various agencies and institutions of criminal justice are highly interdependent, and efforts to address problems in one of them are likely to fail if they do not take into account the repercussions of reform on all the others. But the agencies of criminal justice are not part of a single, coherent organization. Their relationships with one another often are haphazard and uncoordinated.” [1]

Think about it for a moment: who are the main actors in the criminal legal system, after law enforcement hands someone over? The state General Assembly who makes the laws, the sheriff (who runs the jail and provides court security, including the bailiffs), a number of District and Superior Court judges (along with appellate judges and the state Supreme Court), the District Attorney, the Clerk of Court, and defense attorneys. 

Every one of these except the last are elected in North Carolina, so each has their own power base (including each individual judge). And defense attorneys are a collection of independent private attorneys and attorneys in the Office of the Public Defender who are accountable to their clients. On top of those main actors we have Pretrial Services, Probation and Parole, and Victim Services, each an independent agency which does not answer to any of the others.

So not only is no one in charge, no part of the system is even answerable to any other part. This has two very important consequences. 

First, even if every actor in the system operates with the best of intentions (and in general I believe that they do), things can get very messed up and lead to results that each individual actor agrees are bad. 

And second, even if everyone agrees the system should change, actually doing so is incredibly difficult. Besides the ordinary inertia of any system, every major actor has the power to say no to any particular change (which they often will since, even when people agree on the outcome, they often disagree on the means). Add in three other distinctive features of American criminal justice that are reflected in Buncombe County as well: a high volume of cases, a chronic shortage of resources, and “broad, largely unguided and largely uncontrolled discretion” [2], and you have a recipe for a system that is intensely resistant to change.

There is, however, a vital part of the system that we have not yet named: the public. It’s the public that votes for elected officials and it’s the public that sits on juries. And in the end, it is to the public that all the actors in the system and even the laws themselves are accountable. That accountability is slow and the law and its systems often lag significantly, but if we truly want to reform our criminal legal systems so as to turn them into actual systems for justice, it is the public that will drive the change.

That’s a long, slow, and difficult process, but one aspect of it is that the public needs to understand just how the system actually works. That is the underlying spur for these posts. I am under no illusion that what I’m writing will be “popular,” but I do hope that it can be a resource for community leaders, community groups, elected officials, and local media.

1. Sanford H. Kadish, Stephen J. Schulhofer and Carol S. Steiker, Criminal Law and its Processes: Cases and Materials, 8th Ed. (Austin, Aspen Publishers, 2007), 1.
2. Ibid., 2-3.

How Long Do People Stay in the Buncombe County Jail? Part 2: Race & Gender Patterns

We saw in the last post that the majority of people incarcerated in Buncombe County pretrial are only there for a few days. We also saw that there are significant racial and gender disparities in the jail, but that they varied according to whether we focused on the population in jail at a particular moment (including an average over time) or looked at the statistics of everyone cycling through. 

For example, about 30% of the population of the jail at any given time is Black, but when we look at the population of everyone booked into the jail in 2022, that drops to 20%. The disparity is still very significant, given that Black people only make up 6.3% of the population in Buncombe County, but noticeably lower. A similar phenomenon works with gender: over time the average female population in the jail is about 12%, but the percentage jumps to 24% when we look at all bookings in 2022.

I asserted that the difference arises from the fact that some demographic groups tend to be incarcerated for a longer time than others and that leads them to be overrepresented in the jail population at any given time, even if there is no other disparity (which, in fact, there is). 

The chart below demonstrates that for completed jail stays of Black versus white people. Rather than raw counts, it shows the percentage of people within each race that stay for each period of time. The actual data are shown in the table below.

Bar chart showing differences in stay lengths by race for different periods, clearly demonstrating that Black people tend to be incarcerated longer than white people. Numbers in the table at the end of the post.

This makes clear that, in addition to a base disparity arising from the number of Black versus white people arrested and booked into the jail, there is an additional disparity in the amount of time spent, with more white people staying shorter times and more Black people longer ones (the longest category is probably somewhat undercounted since the chart only includes completed stays, but including incomplete stays only makes the disparity greater).

As expected, a similar pattern shows up for female versus male occupants, with women more likely to be released earlier, indeed, within a week. This represents a significant contribution to the difference in male and female occupants at any given time, although by no means most of it.

Bar chart showing differences in stay lengths by gender for different periods, clearly demonstrating that men tend to be incarcerated longer than women. Numbers in the table at the end of the post.

We need to be very careful about interpreting this data. Indeed, at this point we cannot interpret it at all. Without further study of the underlying charges, all we can do is note the disparity. We will get to that fairly soon, but the next post will step back briefly from the data and look at how the system itself operates.

The table below shows the actual numbers behind the charts above.

LengthWhiteBlackMaleFeMale
Week or less64.67%59.14%61.24%71.03%
8-30 days20.29%19.35%20.18%20.63%
31-90 days12.32%17.74%14.81%8.33%
Over 90 days2.72%3.76%3.77%0.0%
Completed Stay Lengths By Race and Gender

*Much of the analysis here and in future posts is based on daily early morning downloads of jail data from the Buncombe County Police to Citizen dashboard, starting on January 3, 2022. If you want to perform your own analysis or check my work, you may download the data from daily_bcdf_occupants.csv and daily_bcdf_occupant_charges.csv. These files are updated with the latest data each day. Names and docket numbers are not included, but the occupants and their charges are related by the id and defendant_id fields, respectively.

How Long Do People Stay in the Buncombe County Jail? Part 1: Overall Patterns

This is another question that has different answers depending on the specific frame. Let’s start as we did last time and look at how long the 464 folks in the Buncombe County jail this morning, June 30, 2022, have been here. The result is displayed in the chart at right.

So if you ask a random person in the jail today how long they’ve been there, chances are they’ll answer that it’s been more than a month, and likely quite a bit more.

Those statistics include everybody in the jail, which includes people held on behalf of the Federal government, people serving sentences (up to 90 days), people temporarily there on the way from or to state prisons or other counties, and people being held for non-payment of child support (a completely separate system from the normal criminal one – we’ll definitely be taking a look at that one in the future).

What happens if we only consider only the people being held pre-trial (in other words, they have not yet been convicted of anything). That reduces the total by about 100 people, but the chart looks similar. The average stay is slightly shorter, but it is still true that most people in the jail have been there for longer or much longer than a month.

So most people who go to jail spend over a month there, right? Not so fast! We have the same issue that we saw in the last post. A point-in-time snapshot skews the statistics toward those who stay longer.

So let’s look at stays for everyone who has been in the jail this year, where a stay is defined as the number of days from entry into the jail to either the day of exit or today. And let’s stay focused on the ones who are there pre-trial. In 2022 so far we have had 2,410 such stays.

Now we see a very different result at right. Most people are in jail for a week or less, and only 22.6% are in for more than a month. Recall from the earlier post that about 15 people enter the jail every day, almost all of them part of the pre-trial population. As I pointed out there, if we kept them all for as long as the two charts above imply, we would immediately overwhelm the capacity of the jail.

It is worth emphasizing too that this is the way it’s supposed to be. Every one of those 2,410 people had been arrested for a crime but had not been convicted. Formally at least, and in some cases actually, they are innocent. It is a principle of our criminal legal system that they should only be held if they are considered dangerous or a significant flight risk. The ones that stay either fall into those categories or can’t afford to pay even a low secured bond (I will write more on bonds in the near future and link to that from here).

In the next post we will dig into some interesting demographic patterns in how long people stay in the Buncombe County jail.

July 31, 2022 Update: A recent conversation made me realize that I am actually undercounting the number of people who stay less than a week. It turns out that my count of total people booked into the jail and released is noticeably lower than the data shown on the Sheriff’s dashboard. The reason is that I miss anyone who comes in after my morning download but then bonds out before I download again the next day. If it looks like this might have a significant impact on any of the questions I’m looking at, I’ll call it out and, where possible, augment the data I have with other sources.

*Much of the analysis here and in future posts is based on daily early morning downloads of jail data from the Buncombe County Police to Citizen dashboard, starting on January 3, 2022. If you want to perform your own analysis or check my work, you may download the data from daily_bcdf_occupants.csv and daily_bcdf_occupant_charges.csv. These files are updated with the latest data each day. Names and docket numbers are not included, but the occupants and their charges are related by the id and defendant_id fields, respectively.

Who is in the Buncombe County Jail?

Before we get into statistics, I want to start by acknowledging that the people who get booked into the Buncombe County Jail are just that: people. They have families and friends, jobs and kids and partners, and they have stories about how they came to be where they are.

It is easy to think of people in jail as “inmates” or “criminals” and thus to separate ourselves from them. It is a false separation. They are part of our community, caught up in a system for which our community is answerable. It is important to always remember that as we talk about the trends and patterns in the system.

Holding that thought, let’s look at who is in the jail as I write this on Monday, June 27, 2022. At about 7:30 AM today there were 466 people held in the jail. Of those, 69 (14.8%) were women and 397 were men (those are the only two designations used in the public data available). In terms of race, 327 (70%) were white and 135 (29%) were Black. The remainder included 3 Native Americans and 1 Asian.

According to the 2020 Census, Black people make up just 6.3% of the County population (11.1% of Asheville only), so they are significantly over-represented in today’s jail population. Men are over-represented as well since they make up just 48% of the population.

Of course, that’s just one day. What happens if we look at the population over time? 

There are two ways we could do that. One is to simply average the daily population over time, as the Sheriff’s dashboard does for the past year. The numbers there are similar – about 30% Black and a little over 12% women (looking at my data from the past six months rather than a single day, I get essentially the same numbers).

An alternative approach is to look at it by individual, specifically, everyone who was booked into the jail so far this year.*  During that period we have 2025 unique individuals who came through the jail.

Starting with gender, there were 1,532 men and 493 women. Interestingly, the percentage of women increases significantly, from 14.8% to 24.3%. 

A parallel increase occurs with white people: in 2022 so far we have had 1,581 white people (78.1%) and 407 Black people (20.1%), nearly a 10% increase in the white percentage of the population.

The difference is because of differing lengths of stay. Once booked, women tend to spend fewer days in jail than men, and white people spend fewer days than Black people. In the next post we will begin digging into those statistics a bit more, but for now it’s important to note that the daily population can give a skewed picture of what’s happening to individual people who show up in the jail.

Which brings me back to my point at the beginning: these are people and it’s important to center that fact even in choosing how to look at the data.

*Much of the analysis here and in future posts is based on daily early morning downloads of jail data from the Buncombe County Police to Citizen dashboard, starting on January 3, 2022. If you want to perform your own analysis or check my work, you may download the data from daily_bcdf_occupants.csv and daily_bcdf_occupant_charges.csv. These files are updated with the latest data each day. Names and docket numbers are not included, but the occupants and their charges are related by the id and defendant_id fields, respectively.

How many people go to jail in Buncombe County?

Daily intake from arrests varies from one day to another, but based on the first six months of 2022, about 15 people on average are booked into the jail every day.

Before the pandemic, the Buncombe County Jail had a total capacity of 604 beds (96 women and 508 men) between the main facility and a lower-security dormitory-style annex. Since the annex was closed in 2020 for safety reasons at the beginning of the pandemic and one of the female dorms was converted to a male, the actual current capacity is now 524 beds: 56 women and 468 men can be housed at any given time [1]. The actual population varies over time, but in 2022 has averaged somewhat under 450. Most of these are pre-trial (about 85%), with a few federal detainees or people serving short sentences (under 90 days).

In the next few posts we’ll look at who gets booked into jail, how long they stay, and what they’re charged with.

For now, suffice it to point out that the vast majority of people arrested and jailed are released pending trial within a few days. That is by design in the first place. Unless there is a strong reason to believe that someone is actively dangerous or a flight risk, there is a strong preference to release people prior to conviction since they are considered innocent until proven guilty.

There is an obvious practical consideration as well. At 15 people per day we would fill the current capacity of the Buncombe County jail about every 5 weeks, for a total of over 2500 people in just the first six months of 2022.

[1] Since the female population has been rising, the female dorm that was converted may transition back – see this January 2022 presentation to the County Commission.

You can find some of these numbers on the Buncombe County Detention Facility Dashboard. Much of the analysis here and in future posts is based on daily early morning downloads of jail data from the Buncombe County Police to Citizen dashboard, starting on January 3, 2022. If you want to perform your own analysis or check my work, you may download the data from daily_bcdf_occupants.csv and daily_bcdf_occupant_charges.csv. These files are updated with the latest data each day. Names and docket numbers are not included, but the occupants and their charges are related by the id and defendant_id fields, respectively.