Dispatches from the North Carolina court system: The cash bail-jail paradox

Dispatches from the North Carolina court system: The cash bail-jail paradox

- in Law and the Courts, News, Top Story
Wake County Justice Center (Photo: NCcourts.gov)

As a recent North Carolina transplant and the newest member of the Policy Watch team, I am getting to know my new home and beat by traveling to courtrooms across the state to observe routine, everyday hearings and share what I see with readers.

The stories will not necessarily be about policy problems or systemic issues with the justice system. Rather, what is written will be deemed newsworthy because it is a routine occurrence that might surprise those who haven’t been through the system themselves. Here’s a link to my previous dispatches. Where should I go next? Email me at [email protected].

For this story, Policy Watch is only using the first names of those who appeared in court, in an attempt to limit the collateral consequences of each person’s involvement in the justice system. Everyone on this docket appeared in district court on a low-level charge, a crime for which they have not been proven guilty.

J ordan needed an unsecured bond, or he wasn’t getting out of jail. The 24-year-old Black man had been arrested on Oct. 8, charged with possessing drug paraphernalia, trespassing, resisting a public officer, and failing to show up for a court hearing, allegations that kept him in jail on a bond he couldn’t afford.

The couple thousand dollars it would cost to get that bond threatened his livelihood, a job at a pizza shop. Jordan was caught in a paradox familiar to people locked up pretrial in a money bail system: unable to work because he was in jail, but unable to get out of jail because he can’t work.

“I’m gonna get fired if I don’t get out soon,” Jordan told Judge Ned W. Mangum from a video feed connecting him from the Wake County Detention Center to the courthouse in downtown Raleigh.

Mangum paged through the file on his desk and noted that Jordan had seven pending charges and hadn’t shown up for court hearings before. Jordan was surprised he had so many cases, so the judge started listing them.

“Sir, those are mostly old,” Jordan said, offering a defense for why he had missed court in the past.

“It’s hard for me to see things,” Jordan said. “I’m half blind.”

Mangum said he wouldn’t make the bond unsecured, which would have let Jordan go home without having to post any money. Instead, it would be a $2,000 secure bond, which Jordan could post himself and get back after he shows up to court — or pay a bondsman a few hundred dollars that he would never see again, even if he went to all his hearings.

It was Jordan’s choice. But it’s not much of a choice if someone doesn’t have the cash.

“If I don’t bond out, I have to sit here until November the second?” he asked.

“Correct,” Mangum said.

Jordan was among those whose image beamed Monday afternoon onto a projection screen in Courtroom 304 on the third floor of the Wake County Justice Center, a sprawling 10-floor courthouse with 19 courtrooms.

I have spent a lot of time in courthouses in Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Connecticut. The Wake County Justice Center is an entirely different animal. The 577,000-square-foot behemoth — it takes up an entire city block — feels more like a mall than a courthouse. There are escalators, digital directories built into the walls, even a cafeteria.

It opened in 2013, making it significantly newer than where I was last: the Hoke County courthouse in Raeford, which was built almost exactly a century earlier, in 1912.

Dockets for the morning and afternoon hearings were posted on a TV screen above each courtroom. There were no paper dockets stapled to a bulletin board like at other courthouses. People who had court dates that day could look at a screen near the entrance that alphabetically scrolled through names and told them where to go, like the screens at airports that tell you where your gate is.

But those screens weren’t for most of the people who appeared in Judge Mangum’s courtroom Monday afternoon. Most of them were brought to where they needed to be. They were still in jail, held on bonds they couldn’t afford or denied pretrial release because they’d allegedly violated their parole.

So they appeared via video before Mangum, a Republican whom Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby appointed to serve as the chief district court judge last year.

Mangum’s interaction with each person followed a formula. He asked them their name, told them their next court date and asked if they had any issue with their bond. Many asked him to either lower their bond or make it unsecured so they could go home without having to come up with any money.

In response, Mangum would check whether they’d failed to show up for court hearings before. Most had.

“I’ve got nowhere to go, nowhere to live,” Claudy, a 27-year-old Black man jailed for failing to show up for his court dates, told the judge.

“You’ve got to come to court, man,” Mangum said.

Claudy is still locked up, held on a combined $13,000 bond, according to the Wake County Sheriff’s Office.

Sometimes Mangum would ask how much they could afford to post.

“I can’t make no bond until I get my check from Bojangles,” Lavasia, a 24-year-old Black woman told Mangum, asking if she could get probation or home monitoring so she could go to work.

“I’ll cut it in half for you, ma’am,” the judge said. “That’s the best I can do with all these missed court dates.”

She is still in jail on a $5,000 secure bond, according to the sheriff’s office.

The money bail-jail paradox was a recurring theme.

“I’m losing both my jobs,” Anthony, a Black man in his 30s, told the judge. “I’m gonna lose everything.”

Sometimes there wasn’t anything Mangum could do. He explained to Dynasty, an 18-year-old Black woman, that, as a district court judge, he didn’t have the authority over the bond attached to her Superior Court case. She pleaded with him, explaining that she had to get out so she could keep going to school.

“Ma’am, I don’t have any jurisdiction to modify the bond,” Mangum told her.

Mangum wished her luck and called on someone else, another Black man in lockup. When he switched the video back to the room where the jailed women were being held, Dynasty was still there, undeterred. Mangum had told her she was appearing in his court on a $50,000 bond and had been charged with violating the terms of her supervision.

“I’m in here for not charging my monitor,” Dynasty said, apparently referring to the electronic devices some people on supervision must wear.

“Pass the phone to the next person, please,” Mangum said, explaining again that there was nothing he could do.

Most of the people with court hearings Monday afternoon were in their 20s and 30s. Thomas, a 53-year-old Black man, was an outlier.

“I just don’t want to lose my career, as well as my home,” Thomas said, explaining that he could pay up to $1,000 but didn’t have anyone to co-sign a bond through a bondsman.

Mangum noted that Thomas had 15 prior convictions and had served time in prison. What makes these charges misdemeanor attempted larceny, possessing drug paraphernalia and resisting a public officer — so special that they would jeopardize his job now?

Thomas told Mangum how his wife had died last year, hinting at a life that has unraveled since August 2021. He said he turned his life around six years ago. He’s not the same man who committed all those other crimes.

“I’m just trying not to lose what has been given to me by God,” he said.

Mangum set his bond at $750, secure. The sheriff’s office website says that he’s still in jail. His next court date is Oct. 18.