Jailed for being poor? In Mecklenburg, no more

Many defendants are held in jail simply because they are too poor to afford bail.
Many defendants are held in jail simply because they are too poor to afford bail. Observer file photo

Elizabeth Trosch has seen how things can go wrong when Mecklenburg County judges set money bonds for defendants accused of minor crimes.

“I’ve encountered egregious situations over the years,” Trosch, a District Court judge, told the Observer editorial board. “I frequently saw defendants with really minor misdemeanor offenses, offenses for which they could not be jailed, sitting in jail for 60 to 90 days on money bonds under $1,000.”

Ninety days in jail for disorderly conduct? That’s not tough on crime; it’s inhumane, misguided and punishes people for the crime of being poor. It also, it turns out, violates state law.

That all changed Friday, when Mecklenburg courts abolished their old matrix that attached certain dollar amounts to bonds for various charges. That system is being replaced with one in which judges assess each individual defendant and their risk of fleeing, committing another crime or tampering with witnesses.

Mecklenburg may be the first county in North Carolina to go this route, but it joins a trend of criminal justice reform bubbling up around the country. Judicial officials – and advocates on both ends of the political spectrum – are recognizing the illogic of holding people in jail while they await trial based on their ability to pay.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Wake is studying release data and may make changes in bail policies.. She said Wake wants to make allowances for bail involving people whose charges are related to their being mentally ill or homeless. “We certainly don’t want to be in the business of criminalizing poverty,” she said.

North Carolina law says that all defendants except those charged with capital offenses are to be released without paying money while they await trial, unless they pose a risk of flight or committing another crime. But courts across the state violate that law by setting cash bonds without seriously assessing those risks.

Mecklenburg’s new policy replaces its old financial bond table with one that uses objective criteria to assess a defendant’s risk of flight or committing another crime. Those charged with extremely serious crimes and those who are a danger will remain in jail under secured bond. But the majority of accused people will be released, some under supervision and others not.

Increasingly, research shows such an approach actually reduces recidivism. Holding a low-risk person in jail for multiple days increases their chance of committing more crime, a Kentucky study showed. So the new policy, Trosch says, “is not soft on crime, it’s smart on crime.”

Similar efforts in other parts of North Carolina could get a boost from a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision last month. The court ruled for the first time that the 8th Amendment’s ban on excessive bail applies to state and local governments. UNC’s School of Government will hold a criminal justice summit on March 15 to discuss bail reform and other criminal justice issues. Presenters are from the far ends of the ideological spectrum, which points to the common ground to be found in this arena.

Mecklenburg has taken a strong first step in showing the way. Its change represents no get-out-of-jail-free card. It simply eliminates the practice of basing people’s freedom on their wealth while keeping dangerous defendants in custody and aligning the county with state law and the Constitution.