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Promising Results in Two New Bail Reform Evaluation Reports

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.

Conditions Imposed

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).

Pretrial Detention

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.

Pretrial Failures

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.

Non-Appearance Rates

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.

First-Appearances

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.

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