District Attorney pushes to end money bonds in Mecklenburg Co., lays out other 2020 initiatives

Updated: Jan. 29, 2020 at 6:31 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - District Attorney Spencer Merriweather introduced sweeping changes to the criminal justice system he hopes to see in 2020 at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. He says his initiatives for 2020 are to make the court system a more efficient place for victims to get justice.

One of the biggest changes Merriweather mentioned was his official push to end the use of bond setting in Mecklenburg County, saying they are unfair and do not protect the community.

"I become the first District Attorney in the State of North Carolina to publicly call for a legislative end for our reliance on money to keep our community safe.”

Merriweather is suggesting that instead of using a money bond system in Mecklenburg County, the courts move toward a preventative detention model, which allows judges to detain people in jail while they await trial.

Currently, Mecklenburg County judges are required to set a bond amount unless it’s a first-degree murder charge. Some judges still set bonds for first-degree murder charges, and allow these suspects to post bond with a GPS monitoring devices.

“A judge has no recourse to protect the community from harm except to bet a dollar amount is high enough to keep the person in custody,” Merriweather said.

Merriweather saying the “betting” is the dangerous part of the system and is sometimes unfairly used against people who might be in jail for a lesser charge, but cannot afford to make bond.

County judges have also gone on record suggesting a preventative justice model for the county, which is currently used in federal courts.

“Those judges up there are simply asking the question ‘Is the community made safe by keeping that person in custody or are they not?’ And if the answer is ‘They are not,' they’re kept in custody," he said. “There’s no dollar figure to put on that.”

Critics of the preventative detention model says it gives a lot of power to judges to lock people away without a trial. DA Merriweather says he trusts the judicial officials to do the right thing.

“I do have an expectation that if someone shoots up a house, if someone repeatedly threatens the safety of a community, I have an expectation and I think the community does as well that a judge will think before they release that person from custody," Merriweather said.

The District Attorney’s office is taking a hard look at violent crimes, including homicide and gun crimes. In 2020, the DA’s office is prioritizing prosecuting these cases.

The office requested and received more court hearing appointments to make sure these get prosecuted faster this year so the victims and victims’ families can move on. The District Attorney’s office plans to bring 20 homicide cases to trial this year, compared to the 13 they tried last year.

“Bringing 20 cases to trial within a given year is our demonstration to the community and folks who are charged with murder, that we are totally willing to hold them accountable in a court of law,” he said.

Merriweather is also planning to make the courts more efficient. He called for an overhaul of how minor court cases are scheduled saying it’s “unacceptable” some people are waiting a year for trial in non-felony cases.

He also said he is pushing for more use of the district courts for minor felony cases. Currently, all felony cases are heard in the Superior Court. He says it would lighten the load for Superior Court if some of theses cases were allowed to move.

The District Attorney’s office is also looking at how technology can better help their officers move cases forward, specifically when police officers have to talk with the DA’s office in the early stages of a case after someone’s been charged.

Currently, law enforcement officers have to physically walk charges and evidence over to the DA’s office so an attorney can determine how to move forward and if they can pursue charges. Merriweather is hoping to speed up that process by developing an online way for the DA’s office and law enforcement agencies to share information.

A full list of the District Attorney’s offices initiatives is below.

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