NC Capitol

NC Capitol

State weighs changes to bail system to reduce burden on the poor

Posted November 19, 2018 5:24 p.m. EST
Updated November 23, 2018 7:33 a.m. EST

— Members of the North Carolina Courts Commission are gathering information about the need for changes to the state's pretrial release laws. The state is one of several weighing reforms of the cash bail system.

At the subcommittee's second meeting Monday, professor Jessica Smith with the University of North Carolina ay Chapel Hill's School of Government delivered a presentation on a pilot program about to begin in Haywood and Jackson counties.

Smith said the pilot, signed off by all parts of the justice system, encourages law enforcement in those counties to consider issuing a summons or citation instead of arresting people for non-violent and non-drug-related misdemeanors. It also encourages magistrates to use a flowchart that defaults to unsecured bond instead of cash bail unless circumstances indicate otherwise.

The officers will have discretion to detain anyone who poses a danger to themselves or others or who has a pattern of failing to appear in court, as well as anyone charged with a violent crime.

According to Smith, North Carolina law guarantees anyone facing felony charges a first court appearance within 96 hours. At that time, a judge reviews the bond set by the magistrate and assigns legal counsel.

But people accused of a misdemeanor don't have the same guarantee of review, so if they can't afford their bail, they can be stuck behind bars for weeks or months – even for lacking as little as $100.

"Those folks can often spend more time incarcerated pre-trial than they could ever get if they were convicted," Smith said.

Advocates from several criminal justice reform groups attended the meeting, including Southerners on New Ground. Kyla Hartsfield, an organizer with that group, said they recently bailed out nine people, including single mothers and family breadwinners, who were in jail solely because they couldn't afford to make bail.

Hartsfield said the consequences of pre-trial incarceration can be disastrous, regardless of the accused's innocent or guilt.

"Lose your job, possibly lose your kids, lose your home," Hartsfield said. "What could I lose in a month? I could lose everything I have."

SONG presented its own report on the status of bail reform efforts across the country. California voted to abolish cash bail starting in 2019. Atlanta is taking similar steps to drastically reduce its use. The group would like to see a similar ban in North Carolina, but they're concerned that replacing it with risk algorithms or discretionary pre-trial detention could make the system even less racially equitable.

Special Superior Court Judge Athena Brooks is heading up the subcommittee, which is expected to meet several more times before sending recommendations to the full commission, which in turn is expected to submit recommendations to state lawmakers sometime in mid-2019.

Brooks said she doesn't think North Carolina's 100 counties, each of which runs its own court system, will be ready to stop using cash bail any time soon. But she said concerns about it have come before the commission frequently in recent years.

"There are small issues that can be fixed that we think would make larger impacts overall," Brooks said.