NC Prisons Recognize Humanism as Religion

Kwame Teague is incarcerated at Warren Correctional Institution in North Carolina. Recently, after a six year process, Teague successfully petitioned to have humanism officially recognized as a religion by the North Carolina prison system. The American Humanist Association describes humanism as a nontheistic belief system and a “rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion.”  Teague had to file a federal lawsuit with the American Humanist Association to gain recognition for his beliefs. The judge ultimately ruled in his favor. He and other humanists will now have the right to receive humanist publications in prison and to meet with others throughout the system to discuss their beliefs. Learn more here.

Prison Employees Get Minimal Punishment for Crimes on the Job

In a series of articles published last year, the News and Observer exposed rampant corruption in North Carolina prisons. In response, state lawmakers asked DPS to provide information about crimes committed by prison employees while on the job. A review of these crimes shows a pattern of employees receiving minimal punishment. In one case, an officer was accused of having relations with a convicted murderer and helping him escape from Brown Creek Correctional Institution. Two and a half years later, prosecutors dropped the officer’s felony charges, allowed her to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, and sentenced her to six months probation. In general, crimes range from inappropriate intimate relations with inmates to smuggling contraband to helping inmates to escape. Smuggling contraband was the most common crime.  According to the Department of Public Safety’s review, 57 prison employees were charged with crimes while on duty. Only four received prison time. Thirty received probation. Most of the criminal charges, about 60 percent, were dismissed. The News and Observer later uncovered several more incidents that were not listed in the DPS report. Reece Saunders, the District Attorney for Richmond and Anson counties, said that a major challenge in prosecuting these cases is that they often rely on the cooperation of inmates, who often change their stories or refuse to testify. Learn more here.

Greene and Lenoir Counties Launch School-Justice Partnership

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.

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.

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.

U.S. Imprisonment Has Dropped Since 2008 Peak

The U.S Imprisonment rate has dropped 11% since peaking in 2008, according to the Pew Charitable Trust Public Safety Performance Project. This marks the lowest rate since 1997. The decrease has coincided with long-term reductions in crime. Since 2008, combined national and property crime rates have dropped 23 percent. 36 states have experienced this decrease in imprisonment, with declines of 15 percent or more in more than 20 states. To learn more, click here.