Released: Wake County’s scientific approach to prison population reduction and defendant re-entry

Pretrial release services suggest a data-driven alternative to the traditional money bond schedule.

Photo by: NC DPS

Editor’s Note: The Campbell Law Observer recently held its write-on competition for the Fall 2013 semester.  Students were given the option of choosing a topic of their own, like this author, or a suggested topic.  This article was awarded the highest overall score by our editorial staff.

In the early hours of the morning, an employee of the Wake County Pretrial Services Program is sipping coffee in a small office underneath the Hammond Road Detention Center.  Hot off the printer is a fax from the records department containing a list of defendants that were arrested and booked the day before.  The Sheriff’s database is fired up on one of the office’s computers, and the pretrial release screening process begins.

Within minutes, the employee has identified an individual who is eligible for pretrial release.  The defendant was charged with a non-violent crime, has a permanent address, is employed, and does not have any prior convictions.  In other words, he is an ideal candidate.

“Without pretrial release, people arrested for non-violent crimes that cannot afford their bond may remain in jail until their court date,” Chuck Johnson, Assistant Director for ReEntry, Inc. said.  “Not only will these non-violent offenders cost the county money, but they may lose their jobs and the ability to provide for their families.”

By assessing qualifying factors of a particular defendant, the Pretrial Services takes a data-driven approach to predict the defendant’s risk of flight and the likelihood that he or she will be rearrested before the completion of their current case.  In identifying those that do not pose such risk, Pretrial Services is able to reduce the local jail population and facilitate the defendant’s re-entry into society.

Risk assessment instruments identify factors that are predictive of pretrial success: appearance in court and public safety.

The Pretrial Justice Institute is a national organization that promotes reform in arrest, bail, and diversion decision–making.  The organization attempts to eliminate bond hearing outcomes that are influenced by race, gender, social class, or economic status by creating data-driven policies.  Such policies endeavor to identify and determine objective conditions that could accurately predict the likelihood of a defendant’s appearance in court and community safety.

To do this, the Pretrial Justice Institute advocates for the use of pretrial risk assessments (pdf) of arrestees before a bail decision is made.  Such assessments identify factors that are predictive of pretrial success—appearance in court and public safety—and provide a standardized method of assessing the likelihood of success in the pretrial program.  Several validated pretrial risk factors (pdf) identified by the Pretrial Justice Institute include prior failures to appear, prior convictions, present felony charges, unemployment, history of drug abuse, and having an already pending case.

 Wake County Pretrial Services has a ninety percent success rate.

To determine which defendants are eligible for pretrial release, Wake County Pretrial Services uses a weighted point scale, known as the Vera Point System, as a mechanism to objectively determine the appropriateness of a defendant for a release recommendation. Points are added or subtracted based on risk assessment factors, such as prior convictions, ties to the community, and employment status.

Last fiscal year, Wake County Pretrial Services handled an average of 510 cases per month. Among those completed, 90 percent of the individuals successfully completed the conditions of the pretrial program.  Though the Vera Point System has been modified in recent years, Wake County is reluctant to deviate from the older version that is currently in use because of the county’s high success rate.

 Charges such as armed robbery, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and murder disqualify defendants from receiving the program’s benefits.

The search for inmates that qualify for the pretrial release program initially casts a wide net.  The first step is identifying defendants that have received pretrial release within the past three years.  If a defendant was previously released by pretrial services and did not successfully complete the program, then that defendant will not be considered.  However, defendants that have successfully completed the program in the past may still be eligible for a release recommendation.

The second step in the process of elimination is similarly broad in scope.  Pretrial Services digs into the defendant’s record, viewing the defendant’s current charges and criminal history.  The goal is to spot violent and repeat offenders that could not qualify for the pretrial release program and strike them from the list.  Charges such as armed robbery, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and murder disqualify defendants from receiving the program’s benefits.  Other considerations taken into account are recent failures to appear for a court date and possible gang affiliation.

Conversely, defendants that have been charged with begging, intoxicated and disruptive behavior, public consumption, or trespassing are also crossed off of the program’s list of potential clients. Such defendants are often detained for crimes that do not involve jail time or for a period exceeding the jail time associated with the crime.  Pretrial Services has found that these defendants are more appropriately served by the county’s “Free the People” program in which detainees are release on a “credit for time served” basis.

As the list of potential pretrial release qualifiers is whittled down, other risk assessment factors, such as employment, duration of residence in Wake County, and a permanent address, are considered.

“These factors show stability,” Johnson said, explaining that those with substantial ties to the community are more likely to appear for their court date.  “It also provides some certainty that those who violate the conditions of pretrial release can be located.”

Once a defendant has been considered eligible for pretrial release, Pretrial Services makes a recommendation to the court that afternoon at the defendant’s first appearance hearing.

Pretrial Services generates a $13 million cost avoidance, allowing the county to use those funds to house more serious offenders.

ReEntry, Inc. started offering the Wake County Pretrial Services Program in 1981 as a means to reduce the Wake County jail population and avoid legal liability for overcrowding. The program is funded 100 percent by Wake County and is part of the county’s Criminal Justice Partnership Planning, which includes other programs such as electronic monitoring and “Free the People.”  The purpose of these programs is to reduce the local jail populations by offering alternatives to traditional incarceration for non-violent offenders.  More than $1.3 million were spent in 2012 for Criminal Justice Partnership Planning programs.  According to Johnson, the Wake County Pretrial Services receives $553,000 per year from the county government.

In the past year alone, the pretrial program saved 186,272 “bed days.”  For every “bed day” that is saved, the county saves $75—the daily cost of housing an inmate.  The program generates a $13 million cost avoidance, allowing the county to use those funds to house more serious offenders.

However, the costs of housing an inmate per day, when broken down, would not compute to such a large savings.  For example, the costs of utility bills would remain the same regardless of the daily inmate population.  Still, the additional space created by the pretrial release program provides additional room for more serious offenders and continues to help the county prevent overcrowding lawsuits.

Those with money can purchase their freedom regardless of where they received their money or their danger to the community while poor defendants remain in jail.

The Pretrial Justice Institute recommends that arrestees be screened for pretrial release services during the initial booking process, at which a risk assessment of each individual could be conducted.  The findings would then be presented to a magistrate or judge so that an appropriate bond decision could be made.

“I would love for North Carolina to take this approach,” Johnson said.  Due to staff limitations, the Wake County pretrial services program is able to screen only a small percentage of arrestees booked into the jail system.  The program focuses the time and resources they have on interviewing defendants that it believes are more likely to be approved.

“If more people were screened,” Johnson said, “a lot more people would receive unsecured bonds and written promises to appear.”

North Carolina courts currently use a bond money system with scheduled bonds set for classifications of certain types of crimes.  This is exactly the type of system that the Pretrial Justice Institute is attacking.  Those with money, the organization claims, can purchase their freedom regardless of where they received their money—or their danger to the community—while poor defendants remain in jail.  The organization proposes evidence-based pretrial justice practices that would eliminate bond schedules and instead use data from screenings to help the court determine an appropriate bond amount.

Johnson wants to see North Carolina move away from the money bond system; however, his suggested approach differs slightly from that of the Pretrial Justice Institute.  In addition to screening each arrestee upon booking, he recommends the institution of a deposit bond system where the 10 percent of a set bond amount that is typically paid to a bail bondsman is instead paid to the court.  If the defendant appears for his or her court date and is found not guilty of the crime, then the defendant would be able to recover the paid bond.  If, however, the defendant were found guilty, then the court would be entitled to keep the bond payment and use the money to pay for court costs and attorney fees.

By taking a scientific approach to defendant re-entry, Pretrial Services is able to pinpoint defendants that are neither a danger to society, nor a flight risk with undeniable accuracy.

“In the current bond system, the bond payment goes straight to the bail bondsman,” Johnson explained.  “In some cases, defendants are unable to afford court costs and fees or may not return to the court to pay them.”  A deposit system would allow the court to recover some of the costs associated with court proceedings, Johnson said.

By taking a scientific approach to defendant re-entry, Pretrial Services is able to pinpoint defendants that are neither a danger to society, nor a flight risk with undeniable accuracy. In turn, those defendants can return to their families and their work as they await trial. This reduces the jail population and has avoided millions of dollars spent on non-violent offenders.  Though the court system may be reluctant to let go of the traditional money bond system, Pretrial Services has demonstrated successfully that alternatives to the traditional approach can be viable—and in some cases—more effective.

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About Tyler Roberts, Former Associate Editor (12 Articles)
Tyler Roberts served as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2014-2015 school year. Additionally, he was a project coordinator for Campbell's Pro Bono Council and has represented the university in the Regional ABA Negotiation Competition. After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Tyler worked as a staff reporter for the Wrightsville Beach newspaper and wrote about county politics and environmental issues. During the summer of 2013, Tyler interned with the Wake County Public Defender. He graduated from Campbell Law School in May 2015.
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