Opinion

Get the facts on bail bonds, see the changes taking place – Roger Echols

Durham District Attorney Roger Echols says he and his staff have changed how they approach bond requests during his tenure.
Durham District Attorney Roger Echols says he and his staff have changed how they approach bond requests during his tenure. The Herald-Sun file photo

As Durham’s district attorney, I support the effort to revamp our bond and bail system. A bond is set by a judge for each case while a defendant is incarcerated awaiting trial. The primary purpose of a bond is to ensure the safety of the victim and the community, and ensure the defendant’s presence in court. These factors must be balanced with the presumption of innocence and the effects of pre-trial incarceration. I believe that pre-trial incarceration is detrimental to the individual and must be considered carefully.

The decision to set a defendant’s bond rests with a magistrate or judge. In Durham, our senior judges have created a bond schedule that provides a presumptive bond for different levels of offenses. That schedule serves as a starting point for judges as they make their decision in each case. The prosecutor and the defense attorney can request that the judge set a higher or lower bond based on the circumstances unique to each case. I support the senior judges undertaking a revision of the current bond schedule.

I am concerned that misinformation about bond has been relayed in an April 20 op-ed by a defense attorney. She described a recent bond hearing and her dismay that my staff refused to join in her request to release her client on an unsecured bond. The defendant in that case is a registered sex offender who is charged with 47 felonies, including 12 counts of drug trafficking. His charges include four separate sales of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school or a city park. He was on probation at the time these new cases were charged. He is also indicted as a habitual felon. Based on the circumstances of this case, it would have been inappropriate for my assistant district attorney to have agreed to this lawyer’s request. A bond hearing was held in court, both lawyers made their arguments, and the judge determined that a secured bond was appropriate.

Fewer in jail

During my term as the district attorney for Durham, I have made changes in the way my staff approaches bond requests. We conduct regular multi-agency meetings to routinely assess people incarcerated in the jail on low bonds. When I was elected in 2014, the jail population averaged 559. At the end of the 2016-17 fiscal year, it averaged 480. I have instructed my assistant district attorneys that for non-violent misdemeanors and low-level non-violent felonies they should agree to an unsecured bond when public safety does not appear to be at risk.

I am also concerned that false statistics designed to create a sense of alarm are being circulated about the number of people held at the jail on low bonds. One of my opponents routinely argues that many individuals at the Durham County jail linger in custody pre-trial on non-violent misdemeanors and low-level felonies, unable to post even a relatively low secured bond, and further states on her website that “almost half of the people in Durham County jail have money bonds of $5,000 or less.” These numbers are false and the real data is publicly available. As of April 23, only 44 of the 460 inmates at the jail are being held on a bond of $5,000 or less. The majority of those individuals are either being held on domestic violence charges or had previously failed to appear in court on the pending charges.

Durham is ahead of many jurisdictions, because we also have an excellent pre-trial release program that is run by the Criminal Justice Resource Center. The CJRC staff completes a detailed risk assessment that is presented to the judge as a part of the bond review process. Many low-risk defendants are released on an unsecured bond or just a promise to appear for their court date. Defendants of a higher risk are evaluated for supervision under the pre-trial release program, which may include electronic monitoring and drug or mental health intervention.

I will continue to advocate for the expansion of the pre-trial release program because it is important that no one be deprived of their liberty without a compelling safety reason. This is an excellent program, but it is limited by funding. If our community is serious about alternatives to pre-trial incarceration, then we must address the resources provided to this program.

Secured bonds

It is important to remember that there is a place for secured bonds, a point that is sometimes overshadowed amid the important conversations about necessary reforms. I will continue to guide my staff in evaluating bonds on a case-by-case basis. This means agreeing to bonds below the presumptive schedule when justified. It also means carefully evaluating bonds in cases where there is a danger to our community, or a likelihood that a person will flee the jurisdiction. I advocate for appropriate secured bonds for people charged with rape, armed robbery, murder, drug trafficking, domestic violence, home invasions, and habitual offenses.

Reform of the bond system requires a nuanced and thoughtful conversation with multiple stakeholders. As your district attorney, I will host a meeting and invite the CJRC, the judges, the defense bar, and community advocates to discuss the process and further reforms. This is an important conversation and we cannot move forward productively unless we are all armed with the facts, the law, and an understanding of the current programs already in place.

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