Orange County has taken the lead against inequities in the criminal justice system this year by implementing a series of reforms targeting cash bail and pre-trial procedures.
The county is trying to shift away from cash bail by allowing judges in certain cases to grant written promises to appear in court.
Cash bail is a fee defendants pay as a promise that they will appear for trial. Those who cannot put up bail are jailed until their next hearing. Pretrial detainees – many of whom cannot afford bail – make up 70 percent of the U.S. jail population.
The system bail establishes the precedent that wealth and financial stability can grant freedom and better judicial outcomes. It’s time to seriously reconsider how these pretrial processes put marginalized communities at a severe disadvantage.
These changes in Orange County are meaningful and reflect the need for statewide reckoning with the inequities in the criminal justice system, and how they manifest before a trial even occurs.
The cash bail system is one that targets low-income defendants. Innocent people who are unable to afford bail are forced to sit in jail as they await trial. They risk losing their jobs, custody of children or income during this time. They are more likely to take a plea deal and plea guilty, even if they are innocent. Consequently, they are four times more likely to receive a prison sentence.
However, judges have significant discretion over bail amounts. While this creates a more flexible criminal justice system, it has also fostered racial inequities. Black and Latinx men receive disproportionately high bail amounts nationwide, with Black men receiving 35 percent higher bail amounts than white defendants accused of similar crimes.
Another area of the pretrial process that Orange County is attempting to reform is the failure to appear for hearings. For those who can’t miss work, require childcare or don’t have means of transportation to get to the courthouse, failure to appear might mean an arrest warrant and automatic bail set.
This strict attendance requirement is likely to impact low-income defendants disproportionately. The county has attempted to fix this by encouraging magistrates to get to know the defendants and their situation, not just the case.
Orange County’s changes are taken from recommendations made by the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, which was established by Gov. Roy Cooper in June 2020 following the police killing of George Floyd.
From this comprehensive list, the county is also expanding the contexts in which a judge can grant a written promise to appear instead of setting bail and providing questionnaires for magistrates to answer before they can hold someone in jail on bond. One of the task force recommendations urges counties to eliminate cash bail for low-level offenses and could transform how we think about the cash bail institution in North Carolina.
These policy recommendations are just a drop in the bucket of what is truly needed to create a more equitable criminal justice system at the local and state level.
Judicial systems across the state should take notice of Orange County's efforts to implement substantive changes.
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