Greene and Lenoir Counties are working towards keeping children in schools and out of jails. By launching a School-Justice Partnership, they seek to reduce law enforcement involvement in school misconduct. As part of the partnership, schools have signed an agreement outlining strategies for addressing misconduct. Currently, students of color and students with disabilities are overrepresented among suspended and expelled students. The partnership will aim to reduce some of these disparities. Successes in other counties have been encouraging. In New Hanover County, a similar School-Justice Partnership resulted in a 47 percent decrease in referrals to the juvenile justice system in its first year. School-Justice Partnerships are becoming more common throughout North Carolina since the passage of the Raise the Age legislation, which raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction for nonviolent crimes to 18. As schools and communities take a much-needed look at the impact of the justice system on youth, North Carolina stands to benefit from a more rehabilitative, more equitable justice system. Learn more here.
Bail reform advocates around the country now have a new tool to challenge the cash bail system. In North Carolina, the inequality created by cash bail has prompted advocates to push for pretrial release based on evidence of dangerousness and flight risk rather than ability to pay for bail. Only 10.4 percent of North Carolinians live in a district that makes pretrial release decisions based on such evidence. Recently, litigation in Texas has provided a model for those seeking cash bail reform. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently found in O’Donnell v. Harris County that a Texas county’s system of setting bail for indigent misdemeanor defendants was unconstitutional. While state law required an individualized review of factors such as the ability to pay, the charge, and community safety, the court found that individualized assessments did not occur. Public defenders across North Carolina have cited similar concerns in their communities. With this new development in Texas, North Carolina advocates and those across the country have more hope for challenging cash bail. Learn more here.
In Richmond, VA, a new diversion program is providing an opportunity for transformative self reflection. The program, called “Writing Your Way Out: A Criminal Justice Diversion Program” allows participants to take a Virginia Commonwealth University writing course as an alternative to jail. It is part of a partnership between VCU, the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, and Richmond’s office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney. Participants in the program are selected by Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring and others in his office. To be eligible, participants need to have a facility with reading and writing, and be low-level offenders who have shown a motivation to break the cycle of crime in their lives. They cannot be eligible if they have previously been convicted of a sex offense, a violent felony involving a crime against a person, or any form of burglary. In the writing class, students write their life stories and reflect on the events that have lead to their choices. They also share their stories with others in the class. Learn more here.
Shaunte Southern is a Sergeant in Gaston County, North Carolina. He has served primarily with patrol and the SWAT team. In a recent essay he wrote for The Undefeated, he opens up about racism in law enforcement. He writes, “[t]o be honest with you, I think that African-American males are treated differently by law enforcement, and that’s my honest opinion. I think this fear of black men is real. As a black officer, sometimes you feel like people expect or want you to pick a side- when in fact you can be both pro-black or pro-police.” He traces this fear of Black men back to historical depictions of Black men as dangerous. Despite this sobering belief about our past and present, Southern expresses hopefulness about the future of relationships between law enforcement and the public. Though he believes that greater transparency has made it easier for police to hold each other accountable, he notes that more of this accountability is needed. He hopes that police officers will find more opportunities to interact with community members outside of their traditional roles, and that the public will be willing to learn more about the challenges officers face. Read the full essay here.
The American Bar Association has created a new web resource devoted to the clemency process in death penalty cases. The resource, called the Capital Clemency Resource Initiative Clearinghouse, is the result of a collaboration between the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project and the Death Penalty Due Process Project. Misty Thomas, chief counsel for the Death Penalty Due Process Project, said that in every state the project has studied, there were insignificant resources for and attention paid to clemency. The resource is designed to address this issue. Learn more here.
In theory, debtor’s prisons in the United States have been abolished long ago. In practice, however, the criminalization of poverty is a common problem. North Carolina is no exception. Not only are people often jailed for the inability to pay court fines and fees, but they are often subject to the arbitrary and unnecessary imposition of bail that they are unable to pay. As a result, defendants are often held in jail for minor charges regardless of a lack of danger to the public or flight risk.This runs contrary to North Carolina law. Despite the supposed presumption of innocence in the United States, people are jailed without having been found guilty of a crime simply because they are poor.
Being incarcerated even for a short time can wreak havoc on individuals, families, and communities. It can lead to loss of employment, loss of parental rights, and loss of housing. It destabilizes people who are already likely to face precarious financial situations.
The for-profit bail industry provides options for some individuals who are able to pay a bail bondsman, but can lead to exploitation and debt. Paying a bail bondsman will allow an individual to pay only a small fraction of their bail, which is guaranteed by the bond company. Bail bondsmen tend to favor higher paying defendants, so that defendants with lower bail are unable to find some who are willing to engage with them because it is not profitable.
Of North Carolina’s 100 counties, 22 have pre-trial release programs that help save money that would otherwise be invested in jailing people. These programs work with courts to allow release of individuals who do not present a flight risk or danger to the community, are first time defendants, or are facing less serious charges. The programs are largely funded by nonprofits but also by the individual counties. Unfortunately, the bail bond industry has made efforts to limit or eliminate pre-trial release programs. The industry possesses a great amount of political power. It has made copious amounts of political contributions to lawmakers, some of whom are bail bondsmen themselves.
Thankfully, local North Carolina civil rights groups have not chosen to stand by idly while the rights of poor justice involved individuals are being compromised. A coalition of groups has begun meeting to exchange ideas, to share successes in the fight against the bail industry, and to strategize for ongoing work. To name just a few, the coalition includes the Carolina Justice Policy Center, the North Carolina ACLU, the North Carolina Justice Center, Southerners on New Ground, the Center for Community Self-Help, and the Center for Responsible Lending.
At the February meeting, Southerners on New Ground presented about their involvement in the national Mama’s Day Bail Out. This event involved bailing out Black mothers to bring them home in time for Mother’s Day. The event drew national attention to the plight of individuals who are too poor to pay their own bail, as well as to the effect that their incarceration has on their families and communities.In Durham, SONG bailed out 14 women from the Durham County Jail. To celebrate Black August, SONG bailed out 9 more women. These bail out events are part of a strategy to push for various reforms. SONG is calling upon key decision-makers to stop incarcerating people based on their finances, to allow for careful and individual pretrial decision-making that allows for community input, and to assesses people’s needs to get back to court in order to invest in meeting them.
Other organizations in the coalition are doing work ranging from researching the impact of the bail bond industry, researching and drafting model legislation, litigating, and pushing for policy reform. The Carolina Justice Policy Center is proud to be working alongside these organizations to help stop the criminalization of poverty in North Carolina. We hope to serve as a resource for you as you get educated about this issue, so that you can stay informed about how you can join us in this struggle.