Mecklenburg D.A. should tackle mass incarceration

Spencer Merriweather has spoken on the need for criminal justice reform, but what will he do about it?
Spencer Merriweather has spoken on the need for criminal justice reform, but what will he do about it? The Charlotte Observer

In Charlotte and throughout Mecklenburg County, unequal justice and over-incarceration remain pressing issues that demand drastic reform. Nearly 70 percent of the county jail population has not been convicted of a crime, jailed while still presumed innocent, often because of unaffordable bail. African Americans comprise 30 percent of the county’s population, but 68 percent of its prisoners. People are still jailed for minor offenses like possessing small amounts of marijuana. Children are still sentenced to spend their lives in jail without any chance of parole.

These are symptoms of a long-broken criminal justice system that cannot be cured with incremental change. It is a system that preys on the poor and vulnerable, threatens public safety, and leads to more crime as it disrupts and traumatizes already fragile lives. It is the product of a discredited and discriminatory “tough on crime” paradigm that has no place in 21st-century Charlotte.

To chart a new path, we need leadership from all corners of the community and local government, including from the Charlotte City Council on which I serve. But most urgently we need our district attorney to not only recognize the unfairness inherent in this destructive system, but to take real action toward de-carcerating Mecklenburg County. There is no official with more power to spark immediate change, and only with a district attorney who stands firmly on the side of reform will progress be possible.

Braxton Winston Observer file

I endorsed District Attorney Spencer Merriweather in this month’s primary and congratulate him on his victory. My support was based on his recognition that our criminal justice system jails too many people, unfairly targets the poor and people of color, and criminalizes addiction instead of treating it like the health issue it is. On issues ranging from drug prosecutions, to biased policing, to the death penalty, he has acknowledged an unjust system. Now with his win in the primary and no challenger in November, it’s time for Merriweather to show real leadership on the reforms that Charlotte needs and justice demands.

The truth is that prosecutors have enormous power over both individual cases and the system as a whole. They decide who gets charged and with what crimes. They decide whether to focus on retribution or rehabilitation. They decide whether to seek incarceration and for how long. Prosecutors, more than anyone else, decide who is in jail and who is not, and who must navigate life with a criminal record and who avoids conviction. In some cases, they decide who lives and who dies.

Merriweather is well-positioned, and now electorally empowered, to wield his power for reform.

The money bail system would be one place to start. Every day in Mecklenburg County, people are jailed for even minor offenses solely because they cannot afford bail. Most people are jailed on bail of less than $5,000, and some on bail as low as $100. The practice effectively criminalizes poverty, locking away poor people while people with money walk free. People already struggling can lose their jobs and homes, forcing them into desperate circumstances where they are more likely to reoffend.

Merriweather should own this problem. He should immediately announce a list of charges for which his office will ask for release without money bail, and instruct his prosecutors to treat money bail as a last resort rather than common practice.

It is just one issue among many, but it is one way for Merriweather to show that he is ready to lead,and to work with the City Council and the rest of Mecklenburg County to create a just and fair criminal justice system.

Winston is a Charlotte City Councilman At-Large.