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Without bail money, she pleaded guilty so she wouldn’t give birth in jail

Hear from a bail reform advocate who was once formerly incarcerated herself

Kristie Puckett Williams was being held on a $167,000 bond when she took a plea deal in order to deliver her twins out of state custody. Now she's a Regional Field Organizer for the ACLU of NC’s Campaign for Smart Justice, advocating for bail reform.
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Kristie Puckett Williams was being held on a $167,000 bond when she took a plea deal in order to deliver her twins out of state custody. Now she's a Regional Field Organizer for the ACLU of NC’s Campaign for Smart Justice, advocating for bail reform.

This is a three-part look at the state of bail reform in North Carolina. Here’s how the system works. And here are some ideas for how the system could change.

A decade ago, Kristie Puckett Williams found herself pregnant in jail, her due date growing near while she sat behind bars.

With her bond set at $167,000, far beyond her financial reach, she took what advocates for bail reform argue is often the only option for the poor.

She pleaded guilty just to get out. Five days later, she delivered twins.

“The bail really prevented me from even imagining going to trial,” Puckett Williams said. “Taking the plea was, like, my get-out-of-jail-free card. And I did that.”

A 2018 study from the American Economic Review shows people are more likely to plead guilty if they are jailed before trial. This same scenario kept Puckett Williams from fighting her charges.

In 2009, Puckett Williams was a cocaine addict in Charlotte, turning to drugs to cope with an abusive relationship in her early 20s. Like many addicts, she fueled her habit with other crimes and found herself jailed repeatedly.

But a drug-free decade later, she calls herself “a model for what change looks like.” Having regained custody of her children and earned a master’s degree, she works for the ACLU in Charlotte, targeting the cash bail system with first-hand experience.

Puckett Williams caught a cocaine trafficking charge in 2009. Unlike misdemeanor defendants, her case did not involve what prosecutors would consider a minor infraction.

She was pregnant at the time and unable to afford pretrial release, so she stayed in jail for five months as her unborn child grew. Finally, she agreed to a plea that required lengthy probation, treatment and drug court.

With her bond lowered, she said, her parents paid her way out — an option not available to many jailed before their trials.

“I lost a lot,” she said. “Not only did I lose my freedom, I lost my ability to have faith in the system.”

Puckett Williams is now one of many people pushing for bail reform in North Carolina, arguing that collecting money for pretrial freedom unfairly targets the poor and — in her case — the needy.

At a conference in January, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein and dozens of judicial officials statewide highlighted cash bail’s unequal impact on poor and wealthy defendants.

He cited a 2017 study from Harris County, Texas — the country’s third-largest county, an area that includes Houston. It showed roughly 30 percent of people jailed before trial came from the wealthiest ZIP codes, while between 60 and 70 percent lived in the poorest.

Puckett Williams counts herself lucky. Her family had at least some money to help, a resource unavailable to most.

The biggest part of her work as a full-time field organizer for the ACLU, she said, is changing perceptions about people who commit felonies. Her story, she said, represents hope.

As it stands, she said, the law fails to take personal history into account, whether someone charged with a felony is a domestic victim or a drug addict. And their freedom, she argues, hinges only on how much they can pay.

“I think about the people behind the walls,” she said. “If you are rich, you get out. If you are poor, you sit.”

Read Part 1: Pay $500 on a panhandling charge or sit in jail for five days. Should NC find a better way?

Read Part 3: If not cash bail, then what? Here are 6 solutions — and their potential problems

Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.
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