“Pay or Stay” Jail System

This weekend, only because I’m a nerd, I decided to watch one of my favorite TED talks (again). In 2012, Civil Rights Advocate Bryan Stevenson delivered an impactful lecture on America’s criminal justice system. If you ever have the time, I suggest you give it a watch.

I had the unique pleasure of hearing Bryan speak at a book signing here in Charlotte and one quote that always stuck out to me was how not only race, but money and the lack thereof shapes outcomes. “We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes; and yet, we seem to be very comfortable.”

In 2016, as an example, 18% of inmates in Mecklenburg County were imprisoned for failure to pay fines or court costs.  Those who could not afford bail stayed in jail for an average of 4 days.  That’s 4 days of incarceration before a person is convicted or even has a substantive court date. Research has shown that one’s ability to pay does not reduce the chances for failure to appear or risk to commit another crime – so the “pay or stay” model doesn’t seem to advance a worthy objective.

The dollars don’t make sense either.  In 2014, Mecklenburg County spent $113 million dollars on its local jail, roughly $166 dollars a day per inmate.

Many County leaders are not comfortable with wealth shaping judicial outcomes, and are attempting to shift how we look at bail and other forms of monetary punishment. In October, Mecklenburg County was awarded a $2 million-dollar grant aimed at reducing its incarcerated population. The grant came from the John D and Catherin T, MacArthur Foundation, with the goal of reducing our jail population by 13%.

To achieve its reduction goal, the County looking to implement the following programs:

  • Automation of the existing Public Safety Assessment (PSA) tool (text message alerts of court dates)
  • Improving its bail policy to help reduce jail bookings of defendants charged with low-level offenses that usually do not involve jail time.
  • Enhancing services provided to defendants pretrial, including expediting and increasing releases to pretrial supervision.
  • Expediting case processing procedures.
  • Developing and implementing a workforce curriculum on implicit bias and its corresponding impact on disproportionate criminal justice outcomes.
  • Implementing policy and practice changes regarding how warrants for failing to appear in court and failing to pay fines will be issued and managed.

For more information on disparities in the justice system and County policies, contact Parton Law.
Drafted by Micheal L. Littlejohn, Edited by Corey V. Parton