Courts & the Law, News

Durham prosecutors no longer seeking cash bail in most cases

The Durham County District Attorney’s Office has stopped seeking cash bail in most cases, it announced in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry

“Research shows the cash bail system disproportionately impacts lower-wealth people and people of color,” said District Attorney Satana Deberry in the statement.  “Setting high money bail doesn’t ensure that dangerous people remain in jail, it ensures poor people stay in jail. This policy removes wealth from the equation to the extent possible under North Carolina law, instead making public safety the determining factor in pretrial release recommendations.”

Bail reform was a strong part of Deberry’s platform when she was elected last year. Since she put the new policy in place in February, she said in Tuesday’s announcement, the population at the Durham County Detention Center has fallen 15 percent.

Though judges in the Fourteenth Judicial District rewrote bail and pretrial system policies earlier this year, Deberry’s announced changes go further.

The new policy establishes a presumption that all those awaiting trial should be released on a written promise to appear, without monetary conditions, except for those facing charges “involving physical harm or threats of physical harm to another person.” That would extend to misdemeanors and low-level felonies with the exception of domestic violence cases, according to the the office.

“In the American justice system, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Deberry said in the statement. “This office believes people should only be detained prior to trial if they pose a flight risk or they are a danger to themselves or others.”

Prosecutors will weigh each case individually in considering what recommendations to make to the court, Deberry’s office said, and those considered flight risks or dangerous may still be put under house arrest or kept under electronic monitoring.

The new policy states explicitly that unsecured bonds — those paid by those charged rather than through a bondsman taking a percentage —  “should not be requested without evidence and a request for a finding that the defendant has the present ability to pay it.”

The national movement for bail reform has gained momentum in the last few years. Last summer, California became the first state to officially end cash bail — a landmark move, though not all reform advocates agree with the specifics of how the state is doing it.

In her statement, Deberry aligned her office’s new policy with that movement.

“This policy is part of a larger effort to rethink when and why we impose incarceration,” Deberry said. “And to reduce unnecessary prosecution of individuals facing charges that often arise from poverty, mental illness, and substance use.”

Earlier this month bail reform activists were arrested after chaining themselves to a gate outside the Durham County Detention Center to protest detention and bail policies. The protest was part of the national Black Mamas Bailout movement, bailing out incarcerated mothers out of jail for mother’s day.

Policy Watch has written extensively about the state’s current bail system and efforts at reform.

Our reporting has highlighted numerous examples of individual and systemic corruption within the bail systemthe system’s frequently unjust impact on the poor and the concerns of veteran jurists that profit and politics have compromised the original intent of state statutes dealing with bail as well as the presumption of innocence.

Many judgespublic defenders, reform groups and bail agents themselves agree the current system and the for-profit bail industry it feeds are badly flawed.

Most North Carolinians think so too, according to polling on the issue done late last year.

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