Commentary

Another experienced voice demands reform of North Carolina’s broken bail system

In case you missed it this morning, former News & Observer columnist-turned-lawyer Ruth Sheehan is back writing occasional essays for the paper. In today’s entry, Sheehan nails a topic that’s been the subject of numerous articles by Policy Watch investigative reporter Joe Killian in recent weeks: North Carolina’s dysfunctional and unjust bail system for people accused of criminal conduct. As Sheehan rightfully notes in explaining the case of a low-income single mom who North Carolina keeps in jail because she can’t come up with the cash to make bail on misdemeanor charge of driving with a revoked license, the system as it’s presently constituted is benefiting no one except the predatory bail bonds industry, Here’s the conclusion to “Save money. Stop jailing people who don’t need to be in jail”:

“Now some of you may argue that folks like this young mother deserve what they get. Drive without a license, you’re a danger to the rest of us. Miss your day in court? You ought to get thrown in jail.

But even if you’re a rock-ribbed, lock-’em-up type – even if you don’t give two hoots about people like the young mother I’m talking about — the numbers just don’t make sense.

Mecklenburg County, with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, has begun using an evidence-based system for determining in which cases a bond is needed to keep the community safe. If the defendant is not a risk to the community and likely to appear in court when required, he or she is released till the court date.

In its first year, Mecklenburg’s efforts resulted in more than a 10 percent decrease in the jail census – with no reported increased risk to the community. Sometimes the difference in a ‘failure to appear’ case is as simple as texting people reminders about their court dates. Mecklenburg, like Wake County, is also trying to connect more offenders with needed services in mental health and addiction.

In Mecklenburg it costs $166 a night to house someone at the county jail. In Wake County it costs just shy of $100.

So let’s do some math. Last week, there were 1,157 people – give or take — in our jail. If we took a page from Mecklenburg and reduced the population just 10 percent – or 115 people — at $100 a night, that’s a saving of $11,500 a day. That’s more than $4 million over the course of a year.

And for a young mother hauled in on a failure to appear, it’s a night at home with her kid.”

Click here to read the entire essay. And be sure to check NC Policy Watch tomorrow morning for another story from Killian on the bail system ion North Carolina.

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