In your county jail, people are incarcerated without being convicted of a crime—locked in a cage because they are too poor to pay for their freedom before their day in court. Our unjust, broken system of money bail has led to a dramatic increase in the number of people, particularly people of color, held on any given day in local jails for days or weeks at a time. Spending just three days in jail can cause a person to lose their job, home, and even custody of their children.

Many system actors, including judges, attorneys, court officials, and other local elected officials, have the power to influence the broken bail system that has led to mass incarceration in our backyards. Their decisions can help put our communities on a better path that focuses on reducing our over-reliance on incarceration, invests in alternatives to jail, and moves us toward more effective approaches to building safe and healthy communities. 

We asked every candidate for Wake and Mecklenburg county commissioner and district court judge in the upcoming primary election for their positions on issues related to the criminal legal system. See their responses at the end of this post and read on to learn more about how county commissioners and judges interact with the cash bail system.

Here’s what county commissioners can do to fix the broken bail system

  • Commit to supporting pretrial services and seek funding to expand those services in the county. Pretrial services—programs that provide support for people who have been charged with a crime and have been released until their day in court —are a critical component to bail reform. Requiring people to pay money to get out of jail was originally intended as a way to ensure people would return for their court date. But with bail amounts rising to unaffordable levels and the advancement of technology, money bail has not only mutated into a system that locks people up simply because they’re poor, but other methods have proven more effective at getting people back to court. Texts or phone calls to remind people of their court date, childcare at the courthouse, vouchers for transportation costs, and treatment for mental health and substance use have all shown to be more effective approaches.  
  • Encourage and support the pretrial reform efforts of the court-system actors in their county and seek funding to facilitate those reforms. Pretrial services programs work hand-in-hand with reforms inside the court system aimed at preventing the harm that comes with requiring people to pay money before being released from jail.  Commissioners can help by publicly supporting judges and magistrates' efforts to improve pretrial release policies and by working to fund related services to make sure those policies succeed. 
  • Support the sheriff department’s expanded use of citations instead of arrest warrants. One way to prevent the harm of incarcerating a person before their day in court is to avoid booking them into the jail in the first place. Law enforcement officers have the discretion to issue a citation (a ticket with a court date) instead of arresting someone. This kind of policy has been successfully implemented in several North Carolina cities for certain lower-level charges. Issuing more citations can not only prevent harmful pretrial incarceration, but it can also reduce costly jail overcrowding and save law enforcement time and money.

Here’s what district and superior court judges can do to fix the broken bail system

  • Support pretrial policy reform and encourage other court system actors (such as magistrates, other judges, clerks) to implement the policy changes.  While state law gives the Senior Resident Superior Court Judges the authority to set local bail policies, the success of any policy change requires the support and cooperation of all of the judges to effectively implement any reforms that have been made. 
  • Use money bail as a condition of release from jail only when no other options can ensure the safety of other members of the community and that the person will appear in court. North Carolina state law already limits the use of money bail, mandating that it be used only in narrow circumstances. Not only do judges have the responsibility to comply with the Constitution and state laws, but incarcerating a person before their day in court is harmful to the individual, their family, and the larger community. Spending just three days locked in jail can have a lasting and devastating impact on a person’s life. Judges can make decisions that limit the use of money bail and instead ensure that most people can go home while awaiting trial. 
  • Support a policy to expand magistrates’ issuance of summons instead of arrest warrants for certain lower-level charges. One way to reduce the number of people who are locked in jail before trial is to avoid booking them into the jail in the first place.  Magistrates may issue summons (court dates) instead of arrest warrants for lower-level charges. This policy can not only prevent harmful pretrial incarceration, but it can also save time and court resources.

We asked every primary candidate for county commissioner and district court judge in Wake and Mecklenburg counties their positions on the issues outlined above. Here are their responses.

Wake County Board of Commissioners:

Sig Hutchinson (District 1)

Jeremiah Pierce (District 1)

Maria Cervania (District 3)

Audra Killingsworth (District 3)

Wake County District Court Judges:

Julie Bell (10B)

Tiffanie C. Meyers (10B) (No response)

Jim Black (10F)

Damion McCullers (10F)

Mecklenburg Board of Commissioners:

At-large:

Leigh Altman

Pat Cain Cotham

Tera Long

Tigress McDaniel

Ray McKinnon

Ella Scarborough (No response)

Lloyd Scher

Brenda Stevenson (No response)

District 3:

George Dunlap

Cade Lee

Mecklenburg District Court Judges:

Aretha Blake

Lynna Moen

Note: The ACLU of North Carolina is a nonpartisan organization. We do not endorse or oppose candidates for elected office.

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