Litigation Challenges Cash Bail System

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.

Experimental Writing Course Provides Alternative to Jail

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.

The Bail Industry and the Criminalization of Poverty in North Carolina

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.

Democracy NC Provides Voter Information Cards for Women

Inspired by the 2018 Women’s Marches focused on taking women’s “power to the polls”, Democracy NC has created “Women Vote in 2018” postcards for distribution. The cards feature important information about this year’s justice elections, including elections of sheriffs, judges, and district attorneys in 2018. Postcards should arrive a few days after submission of an order and are provided for free. For a preview of the postcard, click here.

Charges Dismissed After Prosecutors Hide Evidence

While prosecutors have a large amount of discretion in their work, they are not permitted to hide evidence that could be exculpatory for a defendant.

In a recent Colorado case, prosecutors possessed two reports that that pointed to other suspects since the beginning of the case, yet disclosed them 15 months after defendant David Bueno was convicted.

Bueno and codefendent Alex Perez were charged in 2004 with the stabbing death of inmate Jeffrey Heird at Limon Correctional Facility. The state sought the death penalty against them.

Defense attorneys had specifically asked for evidence relating to the other suspects mentioned in the report. The Colorado Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of charges against Bueno and Perez.

Such prosecutorial misconduct is an example of the importance of holding prosecutors accountable both in the courtroom and at the ballot box.

Judge Makes Racist Remark at Law School

Serving as yet another example of the importance of making informed decisions when choosing judges at the ballot box, a judge made an appalling racist statement during a speaking engagement at a law school. While delivering a lecture on mediation and negotiation at the University of Calgary, Justice Kristine Eidsvik told the class that she felt uncomfortable walking into a room “full of big dark people” during dispute resolutions and that she was used to being in an “ivory tower” where she was “removed from the riff raff.” Judge Eidsvik was serving as the school’s judge in residence for the academic year. She later apologized for her comments.

Judges have the power to profoundly shape the criminal justice system. Given that racial bias is an issue at various levels in the criminal justice system, it is imperative that voters choose candidates who value racial equity. Eidvik’s shockingly overt racism poses a serious threat to justice, and judges with ideas like this cannot be tolerated.