Stop jailing people who don't need to be in jail

Ruth Sheehan
Ruth Sheehan

Eight years ago, I left The News & Observer to go to law school and became a civil attorney. I didn’t have the stomach for criminal work. But it doesn’t take daily practice in criminal court to see the travesty — and waste of money — occurring in almost every jailhouse in our state.

Meet a 31-year-old single mother who was released from the Wake County jail last week. She has worked in low-paying jobs in bars and restaurants, and as a receptionist over the years.

She has a history of misdemeanor charges, mostly driving with a revoked license, not due to impairment. The last one was in 2015.

She failed to appear for a hearing on that misdemeanor driving charge in March 2016, so her charges were reinstated. When she was stopped for a minor traffic violation this month, she was hauled in on a failure to appear. Her bond was set at $2,000, on top of the $250 bond reinstated on the original infraction.

A person with resources would have paid the bond (and gotten the money returned upon satisfying the court) or paid a bail bondsman 225 bucks, nonrefundable, to get out of jail.

But some folks don’t have $225 handy — much less $2,250.

Their kids have to stay with family or friends. And the person charged has to stay in the county jail.

The district attorneys of our state don’t particularly like this system. The judges don’t like it. And I doubt longtime Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison puts on his uniform every morning thinking, “Ah, today I am going to throw a young mother in my jail for failing to appear on a revoked license charge.”

The only people who like this system, and they actually LOVE it, are the bail bondsmen who cash in on the mistakes poor people make. Then again, bail bondsmen make payday lenders look like saints.

Now some of you may argue that folks like this young mother deserve what they get. Drive without a license, you’re a danger to the rest of us. Miss your day in court? You ought to get thrown in jail.

But even if you’re a rock-ribbed, lock-'em-up type – even if you don’t give two hoots about people like the young mother I’m talking about — the numbers just don’t make sense.

Mecklenburg County, with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, has begun using an evidence-based system for determining in which cases a bond is needed to keep the community safe. If the defendant is not a risk to the community and likely to appear in court when required, he or she is released till the court date.

In its first year, Mecklenburg’s efforts resulted in more than a 10 percent decrease in the jail census – with no reported increased risk to the community. Sometimes the difference in a “failure to appear” case is as simple as texting people reminders about their court dates. Mecklenburg, like Wake County, is also trying to connect more offenders with needed services in mental health and addiction.

In Mecklenburg it costs $166 a night to house someone at the county jail. In Wake County it costs just shy of $100.

So let’s do some math. Last week, there were 1,157 people – give or take — in our jail. If we took a page from Mecklenburg and reduced the population just 10 percent – or 115 people — at $100 a night, that’s a saving of $11,500 a day. That’s more than $4 million over the course of a year.

And for a young mother hauled in on a failure to appear, it’s a night at home with her kid.

Community columnist Ruth Sheehan can be reached at rsheehan@thefrancislawfirm.com.