Meck Co Changes Bail Policies

Jul 8, 2010

Mecklenburg County is changing the way it sets bail. The hope is to keep dangerous or repeat offenders in jail before trial, but not clog the system with people who commit lesser crimes and don't have the resources to post bail. The change goes into effect on Monday and represents a significant shift from the way things have been done in the past. WFAE's Scott Graf spoke with Mecklenburg County Chief District Judge Lisa Bell about the new policy. Graf: Judge, thank you very much for speaking with us today. Bell: You're welcome. Graf: First, can you give us a little quick explanation on how bail is currently set in Mecklenburg County courts? Bell: Well, bonds have traditionally been set based more on the charge that the defendant is facing, as opposed to really an individualized decision about the risk that defendant poses. So, a higher bond for a higher, more serious offense. Or, a lower bond for a less serious offense. As opposed to, what are the risks of this person not coming to court or this person re-offending if they are released into the community? Graf: So under that current system that is now in the process of changing, have some bail amounts been allowed to be too low, or I suppose, too high also? Bell: I had a case a couple years ago that illustrates this. It was gentleman who was charged with pan-handling (basically begging for money in downtown Charlotte), and he had a $500 bond. He was not able to make that $500 bond and he stayed in jail for 46 days. And the cost to the taxpayer of that jail stay was approximately $5,000. By the time this person came to court, he had served the 46 days and the most time under structured sentencing that he could receive was 60. And so, that's the gist of this bail policy is that we don't want either bonds that are too low or too high and with an evidence-based decision making that we will now be engaging in, I think we will have bonds that will more accurately reflect the actual risks to the community or the actual risk of the person not appearing for court. Graf: And so, with the change, what new information will you have that you didn't have before - to consider - to set that amount? Bell: During a pre-trail interview by the pre-trial staff, they will determine information such as the stability of the defendant within the community. Do they own a home? Rent a home? How long have they been there? They will look at stability of employment. If the defendant is unemployed, what length of time have they been unemployed? Do they demonstrate a responsible work history? Does the defendant have a history of failing to appear? That is one of the most significant criteria for predicting whether or not a person will fail to appear again. We'll look at the nature of the pending charges, any prior convictions, and any history of drug or alcohol abuse by the defendant. The judges, as part of this bail revision process, have also asked to know whether or not the person is named as a priority offender on CMPD's priority offender list. Whether the person has gang involvement as documented by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, and whether or not the defendant has mental health issues that have been identified in the past. Graf: All of those things seem like obvious things to consider when figuring out whether or not someone should be kept in custody or potentially released. Is there a reason we haven't done this sooner? Bell: Well, I think, that not just in Mecklenburg County but everywhere there has been more of an inclination to just consider secure bonds for individuals. And it's also, I do believe, a public perception that a person charged with an offense shouldn't have to post money in order to be released from jail. What we have now got the benefit of, and what we were able to work with over the past year that we worked on this new policy, is more than a decade of research that was conducted by the consulting firm that the county retained for this purpose that demonstrates that there is actually not a correlation between paying money to get out of jail and showing up for court. And there's no correlation between paying money to get out of jail and not re-offending. Rather, the evidence showed that the correlation is between these risk factors, the nature of the charges, the prior criminal history, the history of drug or alcohol abuse, the stability in the community. Those are the factors that actually predict more accurately whether a person is going to show for court or re-offend. And so, in part, it just took time for the research to catch up. In part, it took time for us to access the research, and also, this is the first time that there has been a collaboration in order to make these decisions about our bail policy with input from all of the stakeholders in the criminal justice system. Graf: Chief District Judge Lisa Bell. Your Honor, thank you very much for your time. Bell: You are quite welcome. Thank you.