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'A small seed planted': This nonprofit hopes to improve the bail system in Orange County

Kimberly Brewer, chair of the Orange County Bail/Bond Justice, sits at the Chapel Hill Public Library between meetings on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019.

The Orange County Bail/Bond Justice Project formed recently to advocate for creating a more just bail and pretrial system in Orange County. Started as a faith-based project of Binkley Baptist Church in January, the organization was certified as a nonprofit on Sept. 30. 

The current bail system favors those who can pay to get out of jail during the pretrial period, said Heather Hunt, research associate in the UNC School of Law. Those who can't post bail are unable to go to their jobs and are more likely to get convicted.

If you cannot afford to pay bail, “you’re stuck,” she said.

Kimberly Brewer, chairperson of the project, said the injustice is present in courts all across the state, not just Orange County. But, the organization is working to establish a $50,000 revolving bail fund that will be used to post low-cost bail for people in the county who cannot afford to pay it. 

Basic requirements to be chosen for assistance are:

  • Bail of $3,000 or less
  • Must live in and be charged in Orange County
  • The person has no hold that would preclude their release 
  • The person has no recent history of multiple failures to appear in court

The group hopes to begin posting bail for defendants in January.

Carlton Chambers, a justice-impacted person who was asked to join the steering committee for the organization after speaking at an event at Binkley Baptist Church, said the fund is “just a small seed planted.” 

“I like to look into the future, and I don’t think this is something that’ll stop,” Chambers said. 

Though some may worry those who get assistance from the bail fund may not appear in court for their trial, Brewer said studies show alternatives to bail, such as written promises to appear, have shown no reduction in the number of people showing up to court. 

The organization plans to stay in touch with those they assist with bail to ensure they can make it to their court appearance.

Seven faith-based groups are now partners in the program, and the organization also includes justice organization partners, like the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Branch of the NAACP, ACLU, EmPOWERment and the Carolina Justice Policy Center.

Everyone involved in the organization is a volunteer, Brewer said. 

“It doesn’t have to be someone who has a religious affiliation, it has to be someone who believes in justice on this issue," Brewer said.

For volunteers like Chambers, the organization is significant. 

“I’m here to do my part and be there for whatever it is I need to be there for, no matter what it is,” Chambers said. “At this point in my life, I’m ready to live for a cause.”

The nonprofit started a Court Observation Program in March with the goal of learning more about how bail is being set as well as educating and building support of the community. 

At least two trained Court Observation Team members have been present every day since the program started to observe and document how bail was set and enter that into their database, according to a press release from the nonprofit.  

Though the purpose of the program is to collect data for future use, it may serve the immediate purpose of influencing the judges’ behavior, Hunt said.

“The fact that judges may feel like they’re being held accountable a little bit may make them more sensitive to some of these issues,” Hunt said.

The organization plans to release a preliminary findings report of this program in December with the help of the NAACP Criminal Justice Committee, UNC School of Law and the ACLU. In time for the preliminary report, the NAACP is sponsoring a Dec. 14 symposium discussing criminal justice reform in Orange County. 

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“I think having different members of faith communities and students and others show up to say, ‘We also care about this, this is something important,’" Brewer said. "I think the leaders will hear that."

The final report is planned to be released in January. After that report, the organization plans to revise its Court Observation Program so they can track the kinds of reforms they’re looking for, Brewer said. 

Brewer said they plan to let the data speak for itself. 


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