News: Quick Takes

Statewide poll suggests N.C. would welcome criminal justice reform

A newly released statewide poll from the Pretrial Justice Institute and the Charles Koch Institute seems to show North Carolinians are ready for reform of the pretrial justice system and the practice of requiring money bail.

Lake Research Partners, on behalf of PJI, surveyed 538 registered N.C. voters over the phone. The poll was conducted from May 2 to May 17. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.2 percent.

While 21 percent of respondents said the criminal justice system treats everyone fairly, 79 percent of respondents disagreed. A majority of those surveyed said they believe there are structural inequalities within the criminal justice system that benefits the wealthy over the poor and working-class. Fifty-five percent of respondents said white people enjoy substantially better outcomes than people of color in the criminal justice system.

The poll also found that 78 percent of N.C. voters want to reduce the number of arrests for nonviolent, low-level offenses and support issuing citations rather than making arrests in these circumstances. A little more than 70 percent of respondents favor limiting how many days a person not charged with a serious violent crime can remain in jail before trial if they can’t afford money bond.

Seventy percent also would prefer that decisions about detention be made using an assessment that factors in the arrested person’s possible impact on public safety, while only 13 percent said the decision should be based on the risk of people failing to appear in court for trial. Nearly half of respondents believe prosecutors should have to argue for pretrial detention rather than requiring those charged to argue for their own release.

“We must never forget the principle that Americans are innocent until proven guilty,” Jordan Richardson, senior policy analyst with CKI said. “Decisions regarding bail should be based on risk rather than an individual’s ability to pay, and defendants should be treated with fairness throughout the legal process.”

Cherise Fanno Burdeen, chief executive officer of PJI, said system stakeholders in North Carolina are working to improve pretrial practices.

“North Carolinians believe their pretrial system uses jail too readily for people who are charged with nonviolent crimes, and they’re ready to move toward a system that protects fairness and ensures public safety,” Burdeen said.

PJI cites changes to pretrial practices in Mecklenburg County, which, since 2011, has employed an evidence-based pretrial assessment. The county jail population has decreased from 1,901 in 2009 to 1,093 in 2015. The county jail population decreased, but the public safety and court appearance rates increased.

The push for criminal justice reform has recently reached the national level. On Dec. 18, the U.S. Senate passed The First Step Act in an 87-12 vote. Simply put, the bill looks to promote rehabilitation efforts, reduce recidivism, provide discretion to judges in sentencing, and reaffirms existing laws like the prohibition on shackling women who are pregnant, in labor, or in postpartum recovery.

A similar version passed the U.S. House in May by a 360-59 vote. The House could concur with the Senate version and send the measure to President Trump before the end of the year.