Mecklenburg County Rethinks the Cash Bail System
Cashing out

County and city leaders are working to decrease the population in the Mecklenburg County jail. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

It was springtime 2018 when Nicholas “Nico” Rodgers, owner of the Charlotte-based 123 Bail Bonding, noticed that something was changing in his home county. The amount of bonds he was writing for “clients,” people in need of bail money to get out of jail, was dropping dramatically. Today, he says he rarely works in Mecklenburg County anymore.

“Six months to a year ago, Mecklenburg was one of my busiest counties,” Rodgers says. “Now I can count on one hand the bonds that I write in Mecklenburg County in a month’s time. If I had to pay my bills and take care of my family with the bonds I write in Mecklenburg, I would’ve been closed my doors months ago.”

The shift has been a purposeful one, implemented slowly in recent years by a number of departments within the county’s criminal justice system. Some people believe the movement was spearheaded by Mecklenburg County Chief Magistrate Khalif Rhodes, who during his 2018 campaign for district judge was a vocal advocate for bail reform in the county. Rhodes ran on a platform centered on bail reform, but lost to senior district attorney Kristen McCallum, who was critical of Rhodes’ leniency.

Rhodes remains the county’s chief magistrate, overseeing 34 magistrates who make decisions about how a criminal suspect can leave jail following their arrest. Rhodes’ office has five choices for each suspect: to be released on their own recognizance, which means signing a written promise to appear in court; an unsecured bond, which holds the defendant financially liable if they do not appear in court; release to a third party, which in Mecklenburg County consists of implementing a risk assessment tool (described below); a secured bond, which orders payment due upon release; and a release under condition of house arrest or electronic surveillance.

Khalif Rhodes

Over the last year, Rhodes has worked to increase the number of written promise releases and unsecure bonds for suspects that his office doesn’t believe to be a threat to others. Although he did become a spokesperson for the county’s efforts during last year’s campaign, Rhodes points out that he’s just following county statutes, which state that he and his team must release suspects by the “least restrictive means” possible.

“Even though I was out there running and speaking publicly about things that we were already doing privately, I tried to assure folks throughout the campaign that it was definitely more than just me and that this was something that, in Mecklenburg County, we are right for doing,” Rhodes says. “Mecklenburg County is ripe for this change because, unlike most places, everybody that’s in a position that needs to be on board is on board … There’s a number of folks at the table that all are committed to doing this work. As a county, folks have taken ownership over this.”

It’s not just folks within the system who want to see a change. The bail reform movement has been growing in Charlotte and statewide in North Carolina. Long criticized as financially and racially unjust, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union have put their full support behind efforts to not only reform the cash bail system but to do away with it completely.

As part of ACLU’s national Campaign for Smart Justice, which aims to cut the country’s jail and prison population in half, the North Carolina ACLU chapter has begun work on ending the for-profit cash bail system that it says “strips people of their rights, targets poor people and people of color, and hurts families and communities,” according to the organization’s website.

Formed in 1920, for nearly a century the ACLU has been known as an organization of lawyers fighting for constitutional rights. But following the 2016 election, the organization began to branch out into social work.

“When the administration changed, the tone of the country began to change,” says Kristie Puckett Williams, who was hired in August to lead the local Smart Justice campaign.

“So the ACLU thought that they could do other and more things,” she continues. “Not just litigation, but how to really become involved in the electoral process and how to use their social capital and their branding to bring awareness to issues that everyday people may not know.”

Kristie Puckett Williams in her Charlotte office. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

The ACLU began hiring community organizers like Williams who have experience in the criminal justice system. Ten years ago, Williams found herself locked up on a drug trafficking charge through the second and third trimesters of her pregnancy.

She has since cleaned up and in 2011 began doing advocacy work around some of the issues she experienced firsthand, including domestic violence and addiction.

“I thought that’s what my life’s work was going to be, but then I thought about how incarceration disproportionately affected black and brown people,” Williams recalls. “Domestic violence affects everybody; addiction, everybody. But incarceration disproportionately affects black and brown people, so how do I use my own experience and the platform that I was given from going around speaking about violence and all these things, now to focus on incarceration?”

Part of that transition involved learning to listen instead of speak. Williams says her priority as she works on the Smart Justice campaign in Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties is to gather residents who may be unfamiliar with the bail reform movement and hear what they have to say, rather than preach the positions of the ACLU.

She organizes community meetings and sets rules related to respecting whomever is speaking, regardless of whether other participants agree. She admits that neither she nor the organization has a clear-cut answer on what the end of cash bail will look like, because that answer has to come from the community itself.

In March 2018, Atlanta, Georgia, implemented a no-cash-bail policy for all non-violent misdemeanors. When I ask if that’s something that could be used as a model for her work locally, she reiterates that it’s up to the members of the communities she works in.

“What has to happen is the community will have to listen to the people who are closest to the problem to get what that solution is,” Williams says. “It is my belief that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, but furthest from the resources and the power. And those of us who have access to the resources and the power are dubious to make those resources and power accessible.”

Williams is optimistic about seeing bail reform measures implemented in Mecklenburg County thanks to the fact that leaders like Rhodes and his adviser, Chief District Judge Regan Miller, have already taken steps to minimize the negative impacts of the cash bail system and decrease population of the county jail, even if she disagrees with the way that’s being carried out.

Before Rhodes was appointed chief magistrate in 2017, the county had already begun implementing programs to address the growing disapproval with cash bail nationwide.

In 2015, the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners voted to allow the county to act as a pilot site for a pretrial risk assessment tool developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The tool assigns a number score to every suspect arrested for a crime. The score is meant to rank the likelihood that they will show up for court or commit criminal activity in the future. The scores are used in deciding whether someone can be released with conditions such as drug testing or some other type of supervision.

The risk assessment tool has been viewed as a success by many working within the criminal justice system.

“We have a really good collaborative system put together with all our judicial partners,” Jessica Ireland, program manager for Mecklenburg County pretrial services, told NC Policy Watch last April. “We try to use the jail space more wisely so people who can be released with little to no supervision will be. Remember, these people are presumed innocent. A lot of them are only in jail because they don’t have the money to get out.”

Ireland cited data showing that 93 percent of those participating in the pretrial system between November 2017 and February 2018 showed up for their court dates, and 85 percent of them had no new charges between their initial arrest and court date (simple traffic offences were included in that stat).

Williams, however, doesn’t believe the pretrial risk assessment is working. She fears that leaning on risk assessment as the tool to fix what’s wrong with the cash bail system will leave behind those who don’t pass the test, who are often the community’s most vulnerable to begin with.

“Risk assessment has been shown to be inherently racist and biased against black people, trans people, young people,” she says, “so what we don’t want is people to be locked up without the opportunity of having a bond either.”

She isn’t alone in her criticism. In 2014, then-Attorney General Eric Holder warned that risk assessment tools carry risks of their own.

Risk assessments, he said, “may inadvertently undermine our efforts to ensure individualized and equal justice. By basing sentencing decisions on static factors and immutable characteristics — like the defendant’s education level, socioeconomic background or neighborhood — they may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities that are already far too common in our criminal justice system and in our society.”

Rhodes says that as a black man, he remains aware of the inherent biases involved with risk assessment tools and takes those into consideration before sending someone to pretrial services rather than assigning an unsecured bond.

“Some of the things that go into there are convictions, and so if you have a predisposition to having higher contact with law enforcement, then you statistically have a higher chance of having more convictions,” Rhodes says, referring to stats prove it’s more likely for African-Americans or other minorities to come in contact with police. “So that automatically heightens the bar for certain segments of society. The implicit biases that are built into there are hard to deal with, but it’s better than what we’ve done in the past, which is nothing.”

Nicholas “Nico” Rodgers outside of his office on North Tryon Street. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Rodgers fears that the leniency with which magistrates are granting unsecured bonds and other forms of pretrial release will eventually backfire on the county. He says he sees himself and other bondsmen as “buffers” between those charged with criminal acts and the police, who can’t be bothered to go find every suspect that skips out on a court date.

While he admits that it’s money that motivates him and other bondsmen to seek out and find suspects who have skipped bail, it’s not just the financial issue that makes him weary of this new willingness to hand out unsecured bonds.

“I sound passionate about this because, guess what, I do care,” Rodgers says. “I’ve got a wife, I got three adult daughters, I’ve got a granddaughter, I’ve got a son, I’ve got kids out here that can be hurt one day in one of these conditions because Mecklenburg County don’t want to do their job. Now when you let somebody out of jail, you don’t have no kind of buffer.”

Rodgers, who is currently in the process of launching a nonprofit called From Prison to Purpose to help former inmates stay out of trouble, doesn’t appreciate the way people in his line of work are painted by bail reform advocates. He feels skeptical about the future of his industry.

“There’s some bail bondsmen out here that’s running wild and reckless and they deserve to be off the streets, they’re no better than the criminals,” he says. “But there’s also some bondsmen and some companies out here that’s doing good for the community and really want to help people. They’re not out here trying to take people’s last. They say we’re predatory lenders and we can’t even advertise on Google no more. It’s been ran down. I’m sure the business won’t even have another five years if it keeps running like this.”

For Williams, what happens in the next five years is up to the community.

“What we do know is this: If you have money, you get out, if you’re poor, you stay in, and that ain’t right. That’s just the basic bottom line,” she says. “So it’s important for us as organizers to gather this information from the community and allow the community to be empowered enough to say to the legislature, to their elected officials, ‘This is what we want to see happen.’”

So the future of cash bail in Mecklenburg County depends on our community. What’s it going to be?

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