The city of Charlotte is dealing with an increase in crime and some in the public are wondering what's happening to the criminals who commit the crimes.
The wait for a trial can be long between the time a person is arrested and gets a day in court before a judge and jury.
North Carolina law states unless it's first degree murder, every offender is entitled to bond - even those accused of violent crimes.
"I would love for the public to know we don’t make these decisions on our own. We don’t take it lightly," Judge Karen Eady-Williams told WBTV. "When we have a case come before us, we do evaluate the cases so far as bond conditions on a case by case basis."
Judge Eady-Williams, a District Court judge with the 26th Judicial District in Mecklenburg County, added, "We look at the facts and circumstances of this case, of this individual. This individual so far as their history, their ties to the community, their likelihood to reappear, their likelihood to flee the jurisdiction. So we look at a combination of factors. We don’t just look at a charge and treat everyone the same."
As equal as the system tries to be, there is a disparity: money.
Some inmates, unable to raise the money for bond, are sitting in jail awaiting trial for less violent charges while people accused of violent crimes are out because they were able to post bond.
"That’s always going to be the case, and I guess that’s the dilemma that we have as judges because the haves will always be able to make bond and the have-nots will always struggle to get out even though they may have lesser crimes - misdemeanors versus felonies - and they can’t make a bond," Judge Eady-Williams says. "However, if they have no ties to the community, if they have a history of failure to appear - by law by statute - we’re going to set a bond amount, be it high or low."
Case in point: ?Ahmia Feaster, charged with accessory after the fact.
Investigators with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police (CMPD) say last August Feaster and her friends, Sandy Le and Alex Castillo, went missing. Detectives later found Le's body buried in a wooded area. They say her car was missing and her friends were nowhere to be found.
Investigators say they uncovered evidence that Castillo killed Le and Feaster allegedly helped discard evidence, left the country and, according to detectives, lied to police about the crime.
When investigators brought Feaster back to Charlotte, court records show she was eventually given $100,000 secured bond.
Judge Eady-Williams acknowledges there are offenders with even much less bond who can't get out.
"There are some individuals who may have a low bond amount - let’s just say 500 secure - and they can’t make that. Whereas someone who has more access to resources could make a similar bond," she says.
Not every offender who posts bond is trusted to be back in court or not break the law again.
Some with violent crimes, or repeated run-ins with the law, or are at risk to run away who have the means to post bond can be worrisome for the criminal justice system, such as Feaster who is looking at the accessory after the fact charge.
"If you’re going to allow them to get out on bond, can we at least monitor their movement while they’re out?" That's the way Sgt. Stephen Iyevbele sees it. "We use this program to deter people from re-offending. That’s the bottom line. We want them to do the right thing."
Iyevbele works in CMPD's Electronic Monitoring Unit. He says when the court orders an offender to wear a bracelet, if that person posts bond, his officers outfit the individual with an ankle bracelet and set up the system to make sure the person is complying with court orders.
"It tracks every movement, but we do not sit and track their movements all day long. But the device actually retains that information and we can go back and reference that information if we need to," Iyevbele said. "We operate solely on court orders from the judge."
Some offenders are on 24 hours curfew, others have to be home between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. The court order can also set parameters and locations where a person can and cannot go.
Both juveniles and adults are in the program.
"We average 400 people a month, between 375 and 400 people every single month," Iyevbele said. "So this is not an alternative to them being in jail. This is just an added security for the community."
Feaster, the woman who police say helped an accused killer, received the $100,000 secured bond with a stipulation she must wear an ankle bracelet.
She posted bond, and is now on electronic monitoring.
Electronic Monitoring Compliance
Sgt. Iyevbele says most people wearing anklet bracelets follow the rules set by the court. Most, not all.
WBTV and other news outlets receive press releases from CMPD warning the public of individuals who cut off their bracelets.
For example in the month of April, police said Jastin Phillip Hill cut off his bracelet on April 8. Police say Hill's initial charges include felony breaking and entering, conspiracy to commit breaking and entering, larceny after breaking and entering, larceny of a motor vehicle, and assault on a female.
Hill was ordered to wear the ankle bracelet as a condition of his pre-trial release. Officers say on April 8, Hill cut off his device and last known to be in the area of 8608 Stoneface Road.
Also on April 8, James Avery Cunningham allegedly removed his bracelet.
Police say Cunningham was ordered on electronic monitoring as a condition of release while he awaits trial. He's accused of discharging a firearm into occupied property, possession of firearm by a felon, and possession of a stolen firearm.
Officers say Cunningham was last known to be in the area of 3600 Glenwood Drive.
That same day, April 8, Terry Lewis Houston also allegedly cutoff his device.
Houston, who according to CMPD is facing charges for trafficking heroin, possession with intent to sell and/or distribute heroin, and possession with intent to sell/distribute cocaine, was last known to be in the area of 3900 Nevin Road.
On April 11, Derrick Alan Daniels allegedly ditched his electronic monitoring device in the areas of 620 Parkaire Lane.
Police say Daniels was ordered to wear a bracelet as a condition of pre-trial release for possession of a firearm by a felon.
A week later, on April 18, police say Daniel Abraham Mekonen cut off his ankle bracelet as well. His original charge was two counts of assault with a deadly weapon. Officers say Mekonen was last seen in the area of the 7200 block of E. Independence Boulevard, but he was later captured.
That same day, April 18, Todde Obrien Houston allegedly removed his device. Police say Houston was released while awaiting trial for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and felony violation of a protective order. When he allegedly cut off his device, officers said he was last seen in the area of Kenilworth and Charlottetown Avenues.
"It’s not the perfect program. For the most part we have over 90% success," Iyevbele said. "For every 80 people that cut the device every year, we monitor thousands."
"What we do when we receive an alert by phone, email, phone call – we try to call them to see if it’s a false alarm. And if they don’t answer we respond to that location," Iyevbele said. "Usually when we do, we find the device if it’s cut, because they’ll throw it somewhere nearby."
Iyevbele says police start looking for the person and alert the public. Officers say they also go to the "magistrate or court system to do a revocation" and an order for arrest will be issued.
WBTV asked CMPD if there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to use the electronic monitoring program.
"Absolutely. I would say yes. Some of the offenders we’ve had that repeatedly cut the device - we’ve had some that have cut two or three times - I don’t think those people should be on the program," Iyevbele said. "But what are my options here? Do I want them to be wearing one of these when they get out of jail if they make bond, or do I want them to just walk out the door without a device where we can at least figure out what they’re doing?"
Police say offenders who remove their bracelets face additional charges, including Interfering with an Electronic Monitoring Device.
That charge is only a misdemeanor.
"I think it should be a felony the first time you cut off your electronic monitor," says Marcus Philemon. "It’s a privilege to be on it. I think that it should be a felony. I think the offender should be responsible no matter what their background is."
Philemon's organization, CharMeck Court Watch, monitors court proceedings. He believes cutting off ankle bracelets isn't getting proper punishment.
"I think they should be responsible for the payment of damage they’ve done to that electronic monitor," Philemon said. "I don’t think it’s fair to the taxpayer to have to pay for pieces of equipment that another individual has damaged."
"Absolutely I think it should be," Sgt. Iyevbele agreed. "Personally, from working in this unit for so long and knowing what I know about how things operate, I think it should be a felony because it makes it a little bit more serious repercussion for cutting. Right now, it’s a misdemeanor if you cut."
"Our organization has always thought that if electronic monitoring is used for the purpose it was intended that it’s a very good tool," Philemon said. "I look at it from a victim’s standpoint - if the person that broke into my home or broke into my car, if you’re able to track him if they bond out – I would much rather you be able to track them and their movements than not be on electronic monitoring. So I’ve always thought electronic monitoring is a very good tool if it’s used the way it was supposed to be intended."
But Philemon, from his perspective of sitting in on bond hearings and court proceedings, says electronic monitoring has concerns.
"What we don’t like is a lot of times when we sit in on a bond hearing for a particular offender, the judge may reduce or unsecure the bonds totally with the comment, 'well they’re going to be on electronic monitoring if they’re out or while they’re out,'" he said. "It should be in conjunction with decent bond amounts, instead of in lieu of bond amounts. I think it sends the wrong message."
Philemon says he believes the program gives the public a false sense of security.
"I think that the way people perceive - the general public when I go to community meetings – they perceive that someone is on electronic monitoring it’s going to be a crime deterrent, but a lot of times when we’re in court – once again for bond hearings or monitoring particular offenders - there’s offenders in there that have committed new crimes while on electronic monitoring. So it really isn't."
Sgt. Iyevbele acknowledges this concern.
"It doesn’t happen every day, but it does happen. It’s kind of hard to put a measurement on that," he said.
But what about the issue of offenders committing new crimes while wearing the ankle bracelets?
"If there was a robbery on Trade and Tryon, we can run what we call a 'proximity report,' and it will tell us everybody that’s wearing one of our devices that’s around that area," police said.
Police say officers generate a report with a complaint number, the system does a search through the database to see if there’s anybody wearing an ankle bracelet in that area, and it creates a log and attaches it to that report if there’s someone in that area.
"That doesn’t mean the person committed a crime. It just means that particular person was in the area of such a crime," Iyevbele said. "It would tell us they were in that area. And upon further investigation, if they were involved, we’ll find out."
"It’s unfortunate. I don’t think they discriminate anymore who qualifies for monitors. I know through Pre-Trial Services if an individual gets out through Meckleburg County Pre-Trial Services, they could be on a monitor," Philemon said. "They could have cut their monitor a couple of times and still qualify for the service. So once again, I think the system is part of the problem and the system doesn’t send a very clear message that this individual has to abide by these terms or they’re either re-arrested immediately without bond."
Philemon says he wonders if police, prosecutors, and judges all have different ideas about the purpose of electronic monitoring.
"Security is real," Judge Eady-Williams said. "There is a true deterrent factor that goes along with someone being on a GPS or a monitoring device."
The judge, who's been on the District Court bench for seven years, said, "If you would look at some of the statistics - those who are placed on the monitor - the ones who cut off the ankle monitor and the ones who re-offend the numbers aren’t extremely high. So as far as percentages go, it is a way for the community to feel safe or secure."
But Judge Eady-Williams knows perception may be reality for some.
"Some may argue that because they may see media attention, publicity given to individuals who have taken the monitors off or for whatever reason not placed on a monitor," she said. "The security is there for the community once we order it and once CMPD also requests a monitor or probation request a monitor and has a monitor."
Eady-Williams says her colleagues take the issue seriously.
"Those decisions aren’t really made in a vacuum. The judge is given certain info about the defendant before the monitor is assigned."
She says when a suspect comes before the court, a bond will be set.
"We will set a bond amount. Let’s say the bond amount is $100,000, and as an additional condition they’re ordered to be on a monitor with a curfew typically 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. or maybe a 24 hour curfew, but if a person posts bond under those circumstances, then after they’re released they also have to be on the monitor," she said. "Before they’re released, the monitor will be attached and they’ll be on the monitor while out. If they choose to skip court, or skip bond if you will, that’s something that’s beyond the court’s control, but it’s uncommon or unheard of for someone to have a high bond and the monitor as a condition they make their bond."
Eady-Williams says she hasn't seen any data that shows judges are lowering bonds and relying on electronic monitoring.
"So it may seem that we are giving low amounts for certain crimes, but we’re following a matrix if you will that tells us 'if this is the allegation, this is what an appropriate bond should be' so far as a range of maybe $10,000 to $50,000," she pointed out. "$10,000 maybe for someone who has no prior convictions. $50,000 maybe for someone who had four or more prior convictions. And then the other factors that also come into play. But we’re given a range and we also get a pre-trial report to look at to determine what this person risk of flight is and what this person’s level of dangerousness maybe in the community if we were to set a low bond versus a high bond."
Both Judge Eady-Williams and Sgt. Iyevbele say they believe in electronic monitoring. They say for all the bad cases there are numerous others where offenders have not committed crimes, and returned to court to honor their obligations.