Council member opposes mayor’s bail-bond proposal

Dec. 21, 2012 @ 10:48 PM

City Councilman Steve Schewel told colleagues this week he’s not going to support a legislative proposal to tighten bail-bond requirements in gun-crime cases that Mayor Bill Bell has been pushing.

The city is poised, at Bell’s behest, to ask the 2013 session of the N.C. General Assembly to make it harder for some people accused of crimes involving the “illegal use, possession or discharge of a firearm” to get out of jail while they’re awaiting trial.

If their offense came while on pretrial release for a similar charge, or if they’ve been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony gun charge in the previous five years, accused persons would have to convince a judge they’re not a flight or safety risk.

Bell has been pushing for a clampdown on bail in gun-related cases for nearly a year, having started by proposing a minimum $300,000 bond for any such offense. The current proposal emerged after Durham legislators and judges balked at the mayor’s original idea.

Schewel is skeptical of what’s left.

“We need to do things to reduce gun violence in Durham that are real and significant,” he said. “I don’t think this little, tightly defined bump of a recommendation about bail is a serious attempt to do anything about gun violence in Durham.”

He objected on two grounds, arguing first that judges should retain discretion to deal with individual cases, and second that the Republican-dominated N.C. General Assembly could use the request as a vehicle to impose its own wishes on Durham.

“What worries me is it’s going to get over the legislature, it’s going to be taken up by people who don’t understand Durham, that don’t understand the way that our … that will have a different agenda than we do and might make it into something much bigger and something damaging,” Schewel said.

He added that he’d prefer crafting proposals after a detailed analysis of how magistrate and judges are making bail decisions, and after consultations with pretrial release experts who gather information about the backgrounds of those accused of crimes.

“What we really need is a good pretrial release system, not a rigid pretrial release system, where people who actually know and are close to the situation can make good informed decisions,” he said.

Bell responded by saying he’s worked to assemble a coalition in favor of the current proposal, obtaining support along the way from Chief District Judge Marcia Morey and from other mayors around the state.

He also noted past complaints about a “revolving door” at the courthouse where people accused of gun-related offenses quickly make bail.

The proposal is “not a cure-all for violent crime or a suggestion it’s going to be that,” Bell said. “It’s simply targeting those individuals who fall in that particular category to say, ‘You aren’t going to get out of jail at the magistrate’s office; it’s going to be a judge that makes that decision.’”

Schewel was able to rally no one else on the council present for Thursday’s meeting to oppose the mayor’s proposal. Councilwomen Diana Catotti and Cora Cole-McFadden stayed silent, and Councilman Eugene Brown backed the mayor.

The proposed legislation “is not a panacea, and the mayor is not trying to present it as such,” Brown said, adding that the current proposal, “not the one last year, is a step in the right direction.”

Bell’s push in whatever guise has drawn criticism from a variety of sources. In October eventual County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs called it “a knee-jerk reaction” and candidate for the commissioners Omar Beasley said it ran counter to the constitutional right to bond in non-capital cases.