RALEIGH A bill that would restrict government programs that allow some indigent defendants to be released from jail without posting a bond will now go to the full House for debate.
A judiciary subcommittee approved Senate Bill 756 on Wednesday, agreeing to impose changes on locally run pretrial release programs in 32 North Carolina counties, including Wake, Durham, Orange and Chatham.
Supporters of the bill say pretrial release programs essentially duplicate the services of the bail bonds industry, and that government should not interfere with private business.
“When a government entity becomes a substitute for private business, it causes small business to become even smaller,” said Rep. Mike Hager, a Republican from Rutherfordton.
But the bill has drawn strong opposition from some judges, court officials, police chiefs and justice advocates from across the state who say the only beneficiary of the bill would be the bail bonds industry. Marcia Morey, the chief district court judge for Durham County, said pretrial release programs gather critical information from defendants that help judges decide whether they should be released and called the bill “a horrible idea.”
“This is all about making money for the bail bonds industry,” Morey said in an interview after testifying against the bill last week.
Hager says pretrial release programs lack uniform, statewide guidelines and allow people to get out of jail who could otherwise pay their own bond. If the program does survive, he said, it needs reforms, including properly vetting defendants who are approved for the program.
“It doesn’t make sense to have people approved for pretrial release who have been charged with second-degree murder or drug trafficking,” he said.
Chuck Johnson, Wake County’s pretrial services director and president of the N.C. Pretrial Release Services Association, said county programs are similar, even without statewide guidelines. He noted that in Wake, defendants charged with violent crimes or drug trafficking are not approved for the program, but in any case, the decision to release a defendant still rests with a judge.
“The judge can release anyone on any charge,” Johnson said.
The bill was introduced last April by former Sen. Debbie Clary, a Republican from Cherryville who resigned in January, and stalled last summer before being resurrected this year. The measure would:
• Prevent state funding for pretrial release programs, though counties have covered the full cost for several years.
• Prohibit pretrial release services employees from communicating with defendants for at least 48 hours after their arrest. Proponents say the waiting period would give pretrial services adequate time to research a defendant’s background, but opponents say the change is meant to steer more defendants to bail bondsmen and will mean many simply remain in jail longer than necessary.
• Set a mandatory bond of at least $1,000 for persons placed on electronic house arrest.
Several of the bill’s critics said a mandatory bond for persons under electronic house arrest usurps a judge’s discretion in setting bond. But Mark Black, a Raleigh attorney and lobbyist for the N.C. Bail Agents Association, noted that the $1,000 mandatory bond would ensure an accused offender appears in court.
“What we are finding out in the field... what we are seeing is bonds of $10,” Black told judiciary subcommittee members on Wednesday. “That’s not a significant bond.”
Hager agreed. “When a secured bond is in place, from a public safety point of view, it keeps the right people in jail,” he said.
On Wednesday, Rep. Joe Hackney, a Democrat from Chapel Hill, moved to reduce the waiting period before a pretrial staffer could contact a defendant from 48 hours to 24 hours. The motion failed.
Guilford County District Court Judge Susan Burch said the bill could change how courts handle the first appearances of some defendants, resulting in some spending more time in jail.
“Are we going to have to delay first appearance hearings or conduct two; one with pretrial information and one without?” Burch said after Wednesday’s hearing. “We have 9,000 people each year in pretrial release, and the average jail cost is $58 each day. That’s $522,000 in jail costs annually.”
But Hager described the extra jail costs as “incremental.”
“It’s the same jail and staff,” he said. “They aren’t renting a room. The room is already there.”
The space may be there, but there are other costs to housing inmates, said Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison, a Republican, who opposes the bill. He said he likes the current bail bond law "just like it is," and worries about the costs of housing inmates who may qualify for pretrial release an extra two days.
"We have a lot of people coming through our jail, about 35,000 plus annually," Harrison said in an interview. "Anytime we have a delay that means more people in jail."
The costs to run a pretrial release program vary widely by county, said Johnson; some counties spend less than $30,000 a year, while Wake, with the second largest program, spends $550,000 annually.
Greensboro Police Chief Ken Miller told the judiciary subcommittee that the bill could increase crime, particularly robberies and burglaries as defendants try to pay bond amounts in installments.
“State law allows a person to enter into a loan agreement with a bail bondsman and get out of jail on credit,” Miller said. “The payment plan is usually unreasonable, and the person reverts to crime to stay out of jail. It’s going to make our cities and counties unsafer.”
Staff writer Craig Jarvis contributed to this report.