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Monday numbers: Criminal justice reforms in two NC judicial districts show promise

[1]Tool allows magistrates to make more effective decisions on when to impose bail requirements

The UNC School of Government’s Criminal Justice Innovation Lab released two reports last month detailing the results of  pretrial procedure reforms piloted in two judicial districts: Forsyth County, which includes Winston-Salem, (District 21 [2]), and a five county district in eastern North Carolina that includes Martin, Beaufort, Washington, Tyrrell and Hyde counties (District 2 [3]) . 

The two districts worked with researchers to implement a tool that helps magistrates decide on the bail conditions that should be imposed on criminal defendants as they await trial, including the types of bond to issue.

The District 2 program has concluded and the Forsyth County program will continue through June 2022.

The purpose of these reforms is to standardize pretrial conditions that have historically been determined on a case by case basis. The reforms are supposed to ensure magistrates comply with constitutional and statutory requirements in setting bail and bond.

State law requires magistrates to first consider the possibility of release on a written promise to appear or an unsecured bond, or into the custody of a designated person or organization unless they determine that the defendants are unlikely to appear, or are likely to pose a danger to another person, destroy evidence, commit perjury, or intimidate witnesses.

As a growing chorus of experts and advocates argue, a secured bond can unfairly penalize low-income people because it requires the accused to post something of value to be released from jail before trial. An unsecured bond includes no such requirement; indeed, individuals can even be released based on a written promise to appear in court.

The piloted tool contains a flow chart for magistrates to help them decide on the terms of bond and bail. For example, magistrates would impose a secured bond only if defendants meet certain criteria, such as prior conviction or a charge involving use of a deadly weapon. The purpose of these reforms is to standardize decision-making of pretrial conditions that have historically been determined without a structured process.

The tool also requires magistrates to explain their reasoning for imposing a secured bond and to consider the defendant’s ability to pay.

Jessica Smith, a professor at the UNC School of Government and head of the school’s Criminal Justice Innovation Lab [4], told Policy Watch that the high rate of adherence to the tool by magistrates during the pilot programs shows that it generates viable recommendations. 



Here are some of the numbers generated in the two jurisdictions thus far:

3,541 — number of cases studied in Forsyth County, District 21

1,859 — number studied in the five counties comprising District 2

79.12% — percentage of cases in which magistrates followed the tool’s recommendation in Forsyth County

74.82% — percentage of cases in which magistrates followed the tool’s recommendation in District 2

58.74% — percentage of cases in which magistrates set conditions other than a secured bond, such as a written promise, custody release or unsecured bond in Forsyth County

45.77% — percentage of cases where magistrates opted for alternatives to a secured bond in District 2





No significant racial disparities

While secured bonds were required of Black individuals charged with the most severe Class A-E felonies and lower-level misdemeanors at a slightly higher rate, the report concluded that there was no significant racial disparity in the use of secured bonds between white and Black individuals in either district. 

55.79% — percentage of intermediate-level offense cases involving Black detainees that ended up with a secured bond in District 2

49.13% — percentage intermediate-level offense cases involving white detainees that ended up with a secured bond in District 2

45.60% — rate of intermediate-level offenses cases involving a Black individual who received a secured bond in Forsyth County

40.56% — rate of intermediate cases involving a White individual who received a secure bond in Forsyth County

“I read those results as suggesting that the tool is operating with respect to imposition of money bonds in a race neutral way,” Smith said. 

Although there isn’t available data broken down by category to directly compare the percentage of cases with a secured bond before and after the reform, Smith noted that in 2019, magistrates imposed a financial bond in almost 75% of all cases. That rate has now dropped to below 50% in intermediate-and-low-level offenses. 

Smith said that data indicate some pretrial conditions can still maintain public safety. 

Sources: Bail Reform in North Carolina Judicial District 2 Evaluation Report [7] (September 2021), Bail Reform in North Carolina Judicial District 21 Evaluation Report [2] (September 2021).