Many Americans sit in jail for one reason: They were assigned a secured bond — or money bail — and are simply too poor to pay for their freedom. In fact, in some instances, poor individuals spend more time behind bars as defendants who are presumed innocent by law than they would if found guilty at trial.
The steep personal and financial cost of money bail to those involved in the justice system — as well as to local taxpayers who foot the bill when individuals are needlessly detained — underlines a clear economic need for reform. And given that assigning money bail might actually increase the likelihood of a person returning to crime, reform may bring long-term gains to public safety.
A few states have begun to address the money bail issue; however, most still lag behind.
Yet Mecklenburg County, encompassing the greater area of Charlotte, North Carolina, has shown that localities in states slow to embrace bail reform can act regardless of state inertia and bring positive changes to their communities.
A little over a decade ago, Mecklenburg was hardly the locus of criminal justice reform. On June 30, 2007, approximately 2,330 people could be found in a county jail awaiting trial, nearly triple the approximately 900 people one would have found there a decade earlier. Analysis of county trends shows that this increase in the average daily jail population was largely driven not by increases in criminal activity, but by longer lengths of stay.
In other words, defendants unable to pay their bail were languishing in jail and racking up taxpayer dollars for reasons that had little to do with promoting public safety.
But the county soon began implementing reforms. In 2014, it adopted a pretrial risk assessment tool, aimed at improving judicial decision-making in pretrial hearings by using individual-level information about defendants to calculate, in light of larger trends, their risk of committing a new crime or of failing to appear at court if released.
As a result of the Mecklenburg reforms, even though the county’s population grew by approximately 65,000 between 2014 and 2017, the jail population dropped 11 percent. Data from the county sheriff’s office also show that greater numbers of defendants were being released to pretrial services during this time frame.
Contradicting skeptics’ assumptions, these positive trends occurred without a significant impact on court appearance rates or the percentage of defendants charged with new crimes while awaiting the resolution of their case. Recent reforms to Mecklenburg’s bail policy aim to further promote public safety and develop a more just pretrial system.
Amid these changes, support for statewide bail reform in North Carolina has grown.
The North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice underlined the critical need for reform in 2016, and recent polls indicate that state residents are listening. According to a 2018 survey, 74 percent of respondents support bail reform, and 73 percent want to limit the detainment length for defendants not accused of committing serious violent crimes who are held solely due to their inability to pay bail.
As state policymakers consider what changes are needed to reduce costs and improve public safety, they can look to Mecklenburg as an example. The preliminary results of Mecklenburg’s experiment demonstrate that bail reform can decrease the pretrial jail population while avoiding significant increases in crime or skipped court dates.
Given this evidence, it will be more difficult for state policymakers to ignore the issues seen in the state pretrial system — most notably, the disproportionate impact on the poor, overuse of detainment and high cost to taxpayers — or to claim that bail reform is not a worthwhile investment.
Similarly, other counties can learn from Mecklenburg as they develop and revise their own bail policies. Upon collecting and evaluating the effects of those reforms, new lessons will be learned, which can further inform state policy.
In this way, counties can be the new laboratories of democracy, leading the way on statewide bail reform.
Financial means should not determine one’s freedom in a justice system based on the principle that you are innocent until proven guilty. Rather, as Mecklenburg’s experiment has shown, detainment and release decisions should be informed by objective risks, have proven efficacy, and show preference for the least-restrictive government intervention possible.
In the face of state inertia, local policymakers can work to correct these wrongs and lead the way on bail reform. In the meantime, they may also influence county and even state policy as risk-averse policymakers study local examples like Mecklenburg and gain the courage to implement reform. Through such leadership, both localities and states can create a more just, more effective pretrial system.
Emily Mooney (@emilymmooney) is a Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties Associate for the R Street Institute. Arthur Rizer (@arthurrizer) is the Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties Director at the Institute and a former federal prosecutor and police officer. They welcome comments from readers.
Note: Data mentioned in this article were retrieved by the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office and shared with the authors upon request. FY 2013 is composed of aggregate data from July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2013, and FY 2018 includes data from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018.