The UNC School of Government Criminal Justice Innovation Lab and The Pew Charitable Trusts and invite North Carolina jurisdictions to apply to participate in the NC Court Appearance Project. Pew and the Lab will offer free technical assistance for up to three North Carolina jurisdictions interested in examining the scope and impact of missed court dates and exploring ways to improve court appearance rates and responses to missed court dates. Because Pew and the Lab adhere to a non-partisan, evidence-based approach to criminal justice policy, this project will be grounded in data, research, and stakeholder collaboration and priorities.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, criminal court systems moved to virtual proceedings to maintain essential court operations while minimizing the spread of COVID-19. To understand more about that transition and the lessons it holds for the future, we surveyed North Carolina trial judges, prosecutors, defenders, and clerks of court about virtual court. Our survey included questions about changes to court proceedings during the pandemic, the benefits of and concerns about virtual court, best practice suggestions for virtual proceedings, support for various virtual proceedings, experiences with using various technology platforms, and other aspects of virtual proceedings. We received responses from 182 people (Figure 1) from all 100 North Carolina counties.
Figure 1. Survey Respondents’ Current Role in the Criminal Justice System
Our full report is available here. In this post we summarize some top line results.
In late 2020 and early 2021, stakeholders in Orange County, North Carolina implemented new bail reform initiatives. The new initiatives build on earlier efforts. Specifically, stakeholders already had funded a county pretrial services program; adopted an empirical risk assessment tool to inform judges’ pretrial decision-making; established a “strike order court,” affording relief from court non-appearances in appropriate cases; instituted pre-arrest diversion with law enforcement support; and established specialized courts to more effectively address the needs of those who enter the criminal justice system because of underlying issues such as poverty, homelessness, substance use, and mental health concerns. Additionally, local police departments and the sheriff’s office had implemented new policing practices, such as citation in lieu of arrest, to promote the county’s pretrial goals. And in 2018, the Orange County Board of County Commissioners approved a resolution supporting the 3DaysCount initiative, a national effort to improve community safety by applying common sense solutions to pretrial justice issues. Notwithstanding these efforts and actions and the statutory mandate that conditions other than secured bond must be imposed unless the judicial official finds certain factors, G.S. 15A-534(b), data showed that secured bonds continued to be the most common condition of pretrial release used in the county, even in misdemeanor cases. Stakeholders also reported concerns that low-risk individuals were being unnecessarily detained pretrial on money bonds they could not pay. Continue reading →
We have issued a series of reports on North Carolina state and county-level jail occupancy rates, including one in October 2020 focusing on changes in total county and statewide jail occupants during the COVID-19 pandemic (our earlier reports are here, here and here). This report provides updated jail population numbers through November 2020. Please refer to our prior reports for information on data sources and calculations. Continue reading →
On January 2020, North Carolina’s Judicial Districts 21 (Forsyth County) and 2 (Washington, Beaufort, Martin, Tyrrell, and Hyde counties) implemented bail reform. In both jurisdictions, reforms were implemented after a collaborative, consensus process. Participants included judges, prosecutors, defenders, magistrates, clerks, law enforcement leaders and others. Judicial District 21 adopted a new decision-making tool to be used by judges and magistrates when setting conditions of release. Judicial District 2 adopted a similar tool for use by magistrates and implemented new first appearance proceedings for all in-custody defendants, including those charged with misdemeanors. In both districts, the new decision-making tools create a presumption for conditions other than secured bond for certain low-level offenses and screen other cases to identify additional defendants who can be released on conditions other than a secured bond. The tools also center in the decision-making process the requirement in G.S. 15A-534 that a condition other than a secured bond must be imposed unless it will not reasonably assure the defendant’s appearance, will pose a danger of injury to any person or is likely to result in interference with the criminal proceeding. Details about the reforms and the process that led to them are available in project reports here and here. The UNC School of Government Criminal Justice Innovation Lab is executing empirical evaluations of the implemented reforms, and last month we released our first quarterly evaluation reports. The full reports are available here and here. This post summarizes top line results.
In 2019, before reforms were implemented, both jurisdictions were imposing secured bonds in the majority of cases, including in the majority of misdemeanor cases. After reforms in Judicial District 21, this number flipped with magistrates imposing conditions other than a secured bond in the majority of cases (57%). In Judicial District 21, cases are divided into three broad categories for implementation of the new policy: (1) Class 2 and 3 misdemeanors; (2) intermediate offenses; and (3) Class A-E felonies. The policy includes a presumption that Class 2 and 3 misdemeanor cases will receive conditions other than secured bond. Intermediate offenses are subject to a screening process to determine whether additional defendants can be released on conditions other than secured bond. For cases where the highest charge is a Class 2 or 3 misdemeanor, conditions other than a secured bond were issued in 76% of cases. For cases where the highest charge was an intermediate-level offense or a Class A-E felony, that percentage was 54% and 9% respectively.
Judicial District 2 also divides cases into three broad case categories for implementation of its new policy. However, in Judicial District 2 the case category at the lower end includes only Class 3 misdemeanors. As in Judicial District 21, the lowest level offenses are subject to a presumption that defendants will receive conditions other than a secured bond and intermediate offenses are subject to a screening process to determine whether additional defendants can be released on conditions other than secured bond. After removing mandatory bond doubling cases from analysis, Judicial District 2 magistrates imposed conditions other than secured bonds in 46% of cases. Conditions other than secured bonds were imposed in 12% of Class A-E felony cases; in 47% of intermediate cases; and in 76% of Class 3 misdemeanor cases.
In both jurisdictions, these results are consistent with expectations: That a smaller percent of lower-level offenses and a larger percent of higher-level offenses would receive the most restrictive condition (secured bond).
Both Judicial Districts experienced a decrease in pretrial bookings in the third quarter of 2020 as compared to the same period in 2019. Judicial District 21 also experienced a decrease in longer jail stays. In Judicial District 2, length of stay for those charged with misdemeanors increased, but we think that increase may be attributable to a change in the mix of charges seen in 2020 as compared to 2019. Specifically, Judicial District 2 experienced an increase in 2020 bookings for violent misdemeanor charges. Of course, COVID-19 likely impacts changes in detention.
Some have expressed concern that a reduction in the use of secured bonds and pretrial detention may result in substantially higher rates of court nonappearances and pretrial criminal activity. Our evaluation reports show that this concern has not materialized and, in fact, some of these metrics improved after implementation of reforms.
New Criminal Activity Rates
When comparing the first six months of 2020 to the same period in 2019, in Judicial District 21 we found no statistically significant change in the percent of defendants who were charged with new pretrial crimes. In Judicial District 2, all five counties experienced a decrease in the percentage of defendants who acquired any new charge during the pretrial period, and that reduction was statistically significant in Martin County.
Because of reduced court operations in the second and third quarters of 2020, our initial examination of nonappearance rates focused on whether nonappearance rates for the first quarter of 2020 (pre-COVID) differed from rates for the same period in 2019. In Judicial District 21, the number and percentage of court non-appearances decreased during the first quarter of 2020 relative to the same period in 2019. In Judicial District 2, changes in nonappearance rates were very small, ranging from -.70 to 1.44 percentage points. For both districts, the data show very low rates of non-appearances. As noted, this evaluation examined only a three-month period. We expect that as the evaluation continues, observed nonappearance rates may increase, as cases remain pending for longer periods of time. However, the focus of our inquiry will remain on the change in non-appearance rates before and after implementation of reforms.
Judicial District 21 already was affording all in-custody defendants a first appearance before a district court judge. As noted above, stakeholders in Judicial District 2 implemented new proceedings to ensure that all in-custody defendants—including those charged with misdemeanor offenses—receive a first appearance proceeding. Our evaluation shows that 45% of non-48-hour defendants who were afforded a new first appearance proceeding received a condition other than a secured bond after that proceeding. These results suggest that the new proceedings are offering defendants an early opportunity for release from pretrial detention.
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Our quarterly evaluations present results on a number of metrics beyond those noted here and our evaluation will continue for a total of 12 months.
Professor Jamie Vaske is leading the empirical evaluation and contributed to this post.
Back in July I wrote a post (here) inviting North Carolina police departments to apply to participate as pilot sites for The Citation Project. Executed by the UNC School of Government’s Criminal Justice Innovation Lab and the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, The Citation Project seeks to improve policing practices through implementation and rigorous evaluation of a model citation in lieu of arrest policy. Four pilots sites have been selected. They include: Winston-Salem, Wilmington, Apex and Elizabeth City. Continue reading →
We have issued a series of reports on North Carolina state and county-level jail occupancy rates, including one in July 2020 focusing on changes in jail occupancy rates during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic (here, here and here). In this report, we switch our reporting metric and focus on changes in occupants as opposed to occupancy rates. We also provide a new tool for stakeholders to examine changes in county jail populations during the COVID-19 period. Continue reading →
A federal court Consent Order has been entered in the Alamance County bail litigation. The relief granted in that order and the county’s new local bail and first appearance policies hold important lessons for other North Carolina jurisdictions about the constitutional requirements for local bail systems. Put another way, because the agreed-upon relief and procedures in the Alamance case were deemed sufficient to address the constitutional violations alleged, they offer a model for other local bail systems. In this post, I discuss the key changes to the Alamance system. Continue reading →
The Criminal Justice Innovation Lab recently released a report analyzing disposition and pending case times for North Carolina criminal cases. The full report is here. In this blog post, I discuss our findings regarding statewide disposition times as compared to Benchmarks developed by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). As we explain in the report, the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law & Justice recommended that North Carolina examine its current case processing time guidelines using the NCSC Benchmarks as a guide. We thus compared North Carolina disposition times against those metrics. As discussed below, statewide median disposition times in district and superior court, for all case types, fell short of the NCSC Benchmarks. Continue reading →
We previously shared data on jail occupancy in North Carolina for 2018 (here) and 2019 (here). Responding to requests for information regarding changes in jail populations during the COVID-19 pandemic, with this report we offer information about 2020 jail populations. For an explanation regarding our data source and explanatory notes, please see our prior reports. Before we get to the numbers, we make two important points. First, beginning on April 6, 2020, a moratorium was placed on most inmate transfers from county jails to the state prison system. As our colleague Jamie Markham explained, state officials imposed that moratorium to help manage the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, inmates ordered to serve active time were—unless sentenced to time served, released on appeal bond, or otherwise permitted to delay the start of their sentence—rolled into a “jail backlog.” By the end of May 2020, there were over 1600 backlog inmates in county jails. To the extent efforts were made to reduce populations in county jails, the moratorium would have impacted those initiatives. Second, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a suspension of jury trials. Charging new offenses, however, has continued. Thus, jails may be experiencing a backlog of defendants detained pretrial. Continue reading →