Braxton Winston has it wrong on cash bail reform

Some advocates want District Attorney Spencer Merriweather to reform the cash bail system while others say that would be a mistake.
Some advocates want District Attorney Spencer Merriweather to reform the cash bail system while others say that would be a mistake. Observer file photo

In response to "Mecklenburg DA should tackle mass incarceration" (May 27 Viewpoint column by Braxton Winston):

Reforming the cash bail system, unlike Braxton Winston suggests, will not create a more just and fair criminal justice system. In fact, reforms like those Winston wants to see will serve only to undermine justice, incarcerate more defendants and threaten public safety.

Winston recommends that Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather “announce a list of charges for which his office will ask for release without money bail.” What Winston fails to acknowledge is that failure-to-appear rates have skyrocketed 40 percent in some jurisdictions that have passed similar bail reform acts, leaving defendants unaccounted for and exhausting police resources.

In the past few weeks alone, courts acting under the New Jersey Bail Reform Act of 2017 (which essentially eliminated bail for crimes across the state) have released a man accused of dealing altered drugs to middle schoolers; a man with multiple outstanding warrants who made “terroristic threats;” and a high school teacher with 11 outstanding warrants who was found in his car with a female student, drugs, sex toys and a weapon.

Do we really want these defendants roaming the streets of our communities without the consequences that come from skipping bail or failing in the conditions of their release?

Winston goes on to claim that the cash bail system criminalizes poverty. But the reality is that cities such as Baltimore, St. Louis and Spokane, Wash., have seen pretrial incarceration rates increase since implementing similar bail reform policies at 26 percent, 21 percent and 17 percent, respectively. This means that far more defendants – regardless of their ability to pay bail – are languishing in jail, waiting for their day in court.

In reality, surety agents, like those who are members of United Bail of America (UBA), offer a series of pretrial services to defendants from all walks of life (and at a lower cost than government-funded programs), including counsel on the conditions of bond, help finding employment, relocation, drug testing and review of defendant conduct while on bail. Our agents have even waived the initial premium, allowing it to be paid over time instead, and with no interest. Personal interviews with potential clients ensure our agents have a financial interest in the successful behavior and appearance of their clients in court.

If Winston is encouraging District Attorney Merriweather to reform the cash bail system, he must not be aware of what happened in states like New Mexico and Iowa, which instituted cash bail reforms, only to regret it. In fact, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez warned of “devastating results,” calling the failed experiment an aggravation to “catch-and-release, revolving-door justice system[s].”

There are certain criminal justice reforms most can agree on: increased treatment alternatives for drug offenders, sentencing reductions, educational programming, re-entry services, reduced sanctions for technical violations, restored rights after a time limit and speedier trials. But the numbers are in, and eliminating cash bail is not a relevant addition to the list.

The cash bail system and surety agents protect the state by keeping the burden of funding pretrial services off the backs of taxpayers; protect citizens by making sure the accused comply with the conditions of bail and face the court; and protect the accused by providing counsel and support during what can be a confusing and trying time.

There are no better guardians of the criminal justice system than surety agents.

Mescia is executive director of United Bail of America.