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.