Cover Story: Mecklenburg courts - new bail policy

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Repeat offenders and chronic lawbreakers - they're the baddest of the bad guys.

Now, a better way to keep these thugs locked up.

Mecklenburg County is changing the way it sets bail.

Here's the system in a nutshell.  Just how bad the bad guy is determines how high his bond is set.

The petty crooks who some would say don't pose a danger to you and me will have a chance to be out of jail awaiting trial.

And the most dangerous criminals - they pay more.  And, in many cases, may not be able to pay at all.

We're talking about what happens to people who are awaiting trial.  Because courts are so backlogged and the jails so overcrowded, the state allows for a person arrested to post bond until his case can get resolved.

Trouble is as we all know sometimes those defendants out on bond commit more crimes.

The new judicial rules unveiled Tuesday hope to reign that in - linking bond amount to risk to the community.

Critics of the justice system call it the "revolving door" that exists in North Carolina and Mecklenburg county in particular.

Once a crime is committed and an offender arrested, he goes to court.  A bond is set, bond is paid and he is out on the streets once again free to commit another crime.

Tuesday afternoon before the Mecklenburg county commission's Criminal Justice Committee, Chief District Judge Lisa Bell unveiled new rules judges and magistrates in Mecklenburg county will now follow when setting bond.

"It is a shift.  It is a new way of approaching our bail policy."

From now on when a judge or magistrate sets a defendant's bond the court will have more information about the person arrested.

Not only his previous convictions (which judges and magistrates always had) but also more vital information like whether there are other charges pending against the defendant, any drug use and abuse and gang activity the defendant has been involved in.

Knowing that information Bell and others say should help the court know how great a risk a defendant is to the community.

Says Judge Bell, "It means your incarceration isn't tied to your ability to pay money. People without means don't necessarily have a higher risk associated with them. Whereas people who have resources-- you think of drug dealers that may have access to resources but they're a higher risk to the community. They don't necessarily need to be released just because they can make that bond."

A task force has been studying the issue for the last year.

"It's something that we were hoping for a long time ago."  Marcus Philemon and other concerned citizens who formed CharMeck Court Watch two years ago hope the new rules bring some sanity to the system.

CharMeck Court Watch is a grass-roots effort to try to bring reforms to Mecklenburg's judicial system.

Can they take credit for putting pressure on judges?

Says Philemon, "I don't think anyone likes for a citizen-run organization to come in, create transparency and then take credit for the change.. but if the change happens we welcome the change."

The new rules are designed to keep dangerous and repeat offenders in jail while awaiting trial by setting bonds higher than in the past.  While allowing for defendants who pose little risk to the community the opportunity to get out of jail, so they're not taking up valuable jail space.

The bottom line- make the community safer.  The new rules take effect Monday.

How much does it cost Mecklenburg county to keep somebody in jail?  It costs about $100 a day and the county doesn't have the space to keep everyone arrested in jail, so bail is something they have to do.

The county plans to track it to make sure the new rules are working.

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