CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The children eagerly gather around Gemini Boyd before he can open his door.
For six weeks this summer, Boyd had been delivering food to children unable to take advantage of school lunch programs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was an extension of the services he provides through his nonprofit Project BOLT.
“If they don't go to school, a lot of the kids don't eat,” he said. “So, I found a way to provide the food but now I'm running short.”
As he hands out food, masks, and hand sanitizer, Boyd quizzes the kids on what they learned in their remote classes. They call out correct answers to a pair of impromptu multiplication problems.
It's a far cry from the life Boyd once lived. He was released from federal prison in 2016 after serving 20 years for drug charges. Before that, an assault charge put him in the state's juvenile justice system. That gave him his first taste of North Carolina's money bail system.
“I was able to bail myself out, but being in there, witnessing people who couldn't scrape together $50 or $100 just to get out,” he said. “If you don't have money, you sit in there and you take a plea bargain, you go off to prison, and then your life is ruined.”
When someone is criminally charged in North Carolina, one of their first stops is before a magistrate judge, who sets the conditions for release until the person goes to trial. North Carolina law gives magistrates several options. In practice, they often assign a secured bond, typically a sum to be paid in cash. The person must pay a portion of this to get out of jail and will owe the entire amount if they fail to appear in court on the day of their trial.
Prof. Jessica Smith, of UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Government, studies several aspects of North Carolina's criminal justice system, including bail. She said survey data shows 40% of Americans cannot come up with $400 in an emergency, meaning many people with low to moderate incomes are unable to afford bail. This leaves many people stuck in jail, during which time they can lose their jobs or their housing. Smith said those effects make it more likely someone will commit a crime once they do get out of jail because the person is desperate.
Those effects fall disproportionately on people of color. In 2018, Princeton professors David Arnold and Will Dobbie and Harvard professor Crystal Yang released a study on bail in Miami and Philadelphia. They found Black defendants were more likely to be assigned monetary bail, with amounts averaging $9,923 more than white defendants.
The most common replacement for money bail is a risk assessment tool. In Jackson and Haywood counties, which comprise circuit 30B, officials switched to a new bail system in 2018. The policy there is to use money bail only in cases where a magistrate determines pretrial release could result in injury to another person or destruction of evidence, or there is a significant risk of flight. Durham County District Attorney Satanna Deberry enacted a similar policy in early 2019. Although her office ultimately does not control the bail amounts that are set, she has instructed her prosecutors to ask for money bail mainly for violent felonies.
The public safety impact of changes to money bail are not yet well known. A University of Utah study suggested a reduction in the use of money bail in Cook County, Illnois—where Chicago is located—led to a 45% increase in the number of crimes committed by people awaiting trial. Smith said nobody has been able to replicate those findings. A subsequent Loyola University study found virtually no difference in the likelihood of crimes committed by people awaiting trial. In Circuit 30B, Smith noted a 1% increase in such crimes, a level that is not considered statistically significant.
The literature is more conclusive on court appearance rates. According to Harvard University, 94% of defendants in Washington, D.C. are released pretrial. Of those, 91% appear at trial and 98% do not commit another crime while awaiting trial. Closer to home, Deberry said 80 to 90% of defendants in her jurisdiction make their court dates regardless of whether they are assigned monetary bail. In Circuit 30B, non-appearance rates went up by 1-2%, but overall appearance rates still exceeded 80%.
Boyd began raising money to cover defendants' bail after he was released from prison, first on his own and then as part of The Bail Project. He recalls having to help someone who was picked up for panhandling and was assessed a $10 bond.
“That $10 bond, it could have been a million-dollar bond because this person didn't have a dime to their name,” he said. “So, we would have just been taking our taxpayers' money to allow this person to sit in there.”
Boyd said the problems of the criminal justice system don't end with money bail, but changes to the system would be a good start.