Crime & Courts

Criminal justice system is strained by Charlotte’s growth, crime spike, officials say

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney has been talking for weeks about how people who commit repeated violent crimes need to be held accountable.

On Thursday night, he sat down with several judicial officials for a public conversation about how to make that happen while violent crime is spiking in Charlotte, despite a multi-decade trend of reduced crime nationwide.

One main obstacle is a lack of funding, Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather said. He said the number of courtrooms and other resources available in state court has not kept pace with the Charlotte area’s growth, and convictions have slipped away from his office because of that.

“Resources give us speed, which changes outcomes,” he said.

When it takes a few years — rather than a few months — to bring a case to trial, witnesses might have moved away, Merriweather said, adding that victims themselves sometimes lose interest or decide they’ve moved on and stop participating. That means the defendant ends up back on the street, where they may be arrested again for a new crime, Merriweather said.

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Two local judges, Elizabeth Trosch and Roy Wiggins, agreed with Merriweather that the court system needs more money to function at its best.

The city also needs to invest in making sure vulnerable young people can access good opportunities as they grow up, Trosch said. In her years working in juvenile court, she said, she’s seen how young people accused of crimes have also been victims themselves.

“Often I see young people who have witnessed intimate partner violence in early childhood, witnessed a murder of a friend or loved one and have now caused harm to someone else,” she said.

Merriweather said he sees one explanation when asked why young people are committing “brazen” crimes.

“People ... haven’t been given reason to believe that their life or the life of the person across from them is worth a damn,” he said.

Trosch said the adult court system could also take some lessons from juvenile court, where judges have more information about each young defendant’s life as they make a decision.

That’s part of what Mecklenburg County’s bail reform, which went into effect in March, is meant to accomplish, reform advocates say.

“What the policy attempts to do is recognize the fact that for years judges and magistrates were just shooting darts in the dark trying to set conditions of release,” Trosch said. “What we realized is ... we were making decisions based on charges, which does not necessarily tell us everything we need to know about risk.”

Now, judges and magistrates use an algorithm to determine whether a defendant is likely to show up to court and whether they’ll reoffend before trial.

Putney has raised questions about the effectiveness of the bail and release system, and he continued to do so Thursday night.

“It still comes down to how we hold repeat violent offenders accountable,” he said, to applause from some members of the audience.

The March bail reforms were also intended to reduce the use of money bail in Mecklenburg County. Requiring people to pay to leave jail disadvantaged people without a lot of money on hand, reform advocates said.

Local public defender Michael Kabakoff, who was also part of Thursday night’s panel, said bail cannot be used as a punishment. The people jailed on criminal charges have not been convicted yet, he pointed out.

Panelists also talked about how childhood trauma can lead to more difficulty for teenagers and adults. Extended incarceration of a loved one can be one of those traumas, Kabakoff said. If someone is in jail awaiting trial, he said, they’re not able to provide materially or emotionally for their family members.

Ideally, judges and magistrates would be able to learn more about each defendant’s circumstances through longer first appearance hearings, Trosch said. From there, they could set conditions of release for each person’s situation.

“The more information I have, the better,” Wiggins said.

But in the overloaded court system, the judges said, it’s hard to find time for that.

Jane Wester is a Charlotte native and has been covering criminal justice and public safety for The Charlotte Observer since May 2017.
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