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Reforms in the local criminal justice system aim to address racial disparities

DTH Photo Illustration. As of Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act (JJRA) mandates that 16- and 17-year-olds are no longer to be tried as adults. North Carolina is the last state to pass such a law.

In the wake of ongoing protests against police brutality, local activists have called for changes to the criminal justice system. 

According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2017, the jail incarceration rate for Black residents in Orange County was 669.8 people per 100,000 residents. The jail incarceration rate for Latinx residents in the county was 226.8. This is compared to 48.8 people per 100,000 white residents. 

The overpopulation of Black and brown citizens in jails and prisons is a function of systemic racism in policing and the entire criminal justice system that has been going on for years, said Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate N.C., a group that supports North Carolinians who have been incarcerated. 

“There is a direct correlation between slave codes and slave catchers, and the overpopulation of Black and brown people inside of our criminal justice system now,” Blagrove said. “So literally, in North Carolina, the history of the connection between policing and the over-policing of Black and brown bodies has been going on since before North Carolina was even a state.”

Policing and arrests

According to law enforcement data analyzed by UNC Professor Frank Baumgartner in 2015, despite Black people comprising 10 percent of Chapel Hill’s population, they made up 47 percent of people arrested for marijuana possession and 24 percent of individuals stopped by the Chapel Hill Police Department. 

To mitigate racially-biased policing, the Orange County Bias Free Policing Coalition presented a list of 11 recommendations in 2015 to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and the police departments of Chapel Hill, Hillsborough and Carrboro.

One of the coalition's recommendations to designate marijuana as a low law enforcement priority is in place in Orange County, said county Sheriff Charles Blackwood. Another recommendation was requiring the use of written consent-to-search forms, and Blackwood said they are employed when practical.

“My idea about how to do this job is to come to work every day with an opportunity to make improvement,” Blackwood said. 

In June, the NAACP branches in Orange and Chatham counties presented a six-point plan to local law enforcement requesting changes such as full data transparency and reviewing the hiring and retention process for police officers. 

Anna Richards, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, said the action plan focuses on creating a system of reimagined justice by dealing with crime in a proactive way rather than a reactive way.

“It’s not really about reforming the police, but transforming safety in our community,” Richards said.

Blackwood said there is a rigorous hiring process to ensure that they are hiring quality candidates. He said he requires officers to complete training in verbal judo de-escalation, racial equity, crisis intervention, cultural diversity and dealing with individuals with mental health disorders.

The bail system

In Orange County, everyone who is arrested has a First Appearance Hearing before a judge or magistrate regarding bail, according to a report from the Orange County Bail/Bond Justice Project. 

While Black residents make up 11 percent of Orange County, they comprised 46.6 percent of First Appearance Hearing cases observed by the project. 

Despite Orange County law stipulating that a written promise to appear be the default instead of a bond, the project observed judges issued a written promise in 38 percent of cases, and magistrates in 17 percent of cases.

According to the report, sitting in jail before a trial, even for one to three days, can result in the loss of jobs, homes or child custody because they are not able to meet these responsibilities in jail. To get out of jail, defendants must pay bail or post a bond, often costing hundreds or thousands of dollars, according to the report.

“Humanity is taken out of the decision when bail is set,” said Will Elmore, vice president of the Orange County Bail Bond Justice Project. “It should not be another mountain for someone to climb to get home, and that's what bail seems to be now, another uphill battle.”

The project is currently fighting to continue anti-racism training for courtroom officials and for conditions of release to be individualized according to a person’s financial resources and ability to pay bail.


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Black people are more likely to be arrested, convicted and face stiffer sentences than white people, according to the North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System.

While policing is an area that needs reform, it is only part of a much larger and complex local criminal justice system, said James Williams Jr., chairperson of the commission. 

“When we talk about reforming a system of justice, we’ve got to talk about a lot more than just policing,” Williams said. “We need to be looking at multiple players when we are talking about criminal justice reform."

North Carolina law stipulates that each district’s attorney is responsible for deciding what charge a person accused of a crime will face, and the seriousness of the charge, according to the Carolina Justice Policy Center. 

“The District Attorney is the most powerful person in your criminal justice system,” Blagrove said. “They have an incredible amount of power and discretion in determining what your local criminal justice system looks like.”

Jim Woodall, Orange and Chatham County’s district attorney, said he facilitates programs that deflect or divert someone from circulating through the criminal justice system by providing alternatives through the Pre-Arrest Diversion Program and specialty courts.

“We still have great racial disparities,” Woodall said, “I think without those programs they would be much greater, and they’ve given us some tools to work with.”

Blagrove said she doesn’t think reform will be enough to eliminate racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

“We need to rethink the need for prisons and jails and caging people,” she said. “All of it needs to go away, and we need to come up with something that is fair and equitable.” 


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