How One North Carolina County Is Keeping Down Its Jail Population


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Mecklenburg County judges are preparing to hold pretrial hearings to determine defendants’ economic statuses before handing down financial punishments.

Mecklenburg County, North Carolina discovered in 2014 that about 20 percent of inmates were booked into jail with a secured money bond, when a magistrate made their initial probable cause determination.

The county, which includes Charlotte, realized many of the people booked shouldn’t have been in jail in the first place, said District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch, which developed a risk-assessment tool for predicting the likelihood of failures to appear.

Between then and 2017, Mecklenburg’s jail population fell 11 percent, where once people were being held pretrial in criminal cases that would never result in jail time even with a conviction.

“There was a lot of fear about the risk that we were taking considering letting people out of jail,” Trosch told Route Fifty by phone. “We now have the buy-in and the commitment to expand.”

That took a locally driven effort to identify criminal justice “pressure points” within the data and county commissioners recognizing the people being released from jail under money bail reforms weren’t threats.

Moderate and moderate- to high-risk defendants can safely be released pretrial on supervision, Trosch said, allowing those who simply can’t pay money bail greater flexibility.

Current law prevents the county from eliminating money bail, but judges do have the option of setting an unsecured or secured bonds. And the county is setting about more robust case management and supervision so that when, say, a defendant under supervision tests positive for drugs but doesn’t pose a public risk, there will be a “graduated response protocol” rather than simply revoking bail.

“We’re trying to work within the framework we have to increase the resources available,” Trosch said.

In October, the  MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge granted an additional $2 million to the county’s Department of Criminal Justice Services to continue reforms. Judges plan to begin holding formal hearings to determine every defendant’s economic status before handing down financial punishments.

A range of factors identified by the Harvard Law School Criminal Justice Policy Program will be considered: independent assets, income and expenses; ability to afford an attorney; whether they’re a student; and recent homeless, drug or mental health assistance. Those factors will be reevaluated if the defendant later fails to comply with the judge’s determination.

The county is also in the process of creating a platform where information required to complete its risk-based assessment can be electronically fed and immediately available to magistrates.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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