On Jan. 24, 2022, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour and Chief District Court Judge Samantha Cabe issued a new comprehensive Bail Policy for Orange County. This new Policy is the culmination of an inclusive process started in 2019 by Judge Baddour with the formation of a Pretrial Reform Work Group tasked with reviewing existing pretrial policies and determining what additional steps the county could take to further pretrial justice.
This group of senior court and law enforcement stakeholders and community members engaged Professor Jessica Smith from UNC School of Government’s Criminal Justice Innovation Lab to facilitate the effort. Over the last two years, the Pretrial Work Group and senior court stakeholders met regularly with Professor Smith and her team to identify priority reforms, review policies and recommend new practices with the goal of promoting a fair and effective pretrial justice system in Orange County.
“While Orange County has long been a leader in evidence-based pretrial practices that include a county-funded Pretrial Services program, daily first appearances for misdemeanor and felony cases and counsel for all detained individuals, our stakeholders, with support from the community, knew we needed to do more to ensure fairness, consistency and equity in our pretrial practices,” said Caitlin Fenhagen, Criminal Justice Resource Director for Orange County.
The Pretrial Work Group’s focus was eliminating the negative consequences that arise from the unnecessary pretrial detention of individuals who do not present any significant risk to the community but who are unable to afford money bonds set in their cases. State law requires imposing a written promise to appear unless specific conditions exist. This mandate has long been incorporated into Judicial District 15B’s Pretrial Policies, but local data indicated that conditions for release were not being consistently set in accordance with this statutory requirement.
“Bonds too often result in needless financial hardship for individuals, excessive mental-health stress for their families, and undue social burdens for the community,” said Renee Price, Chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners and a member of the working group. “Individuals who present no threat to society should never be detained simply because of their inability to pay or their socioeconomic status. Unnecessary detentions, even those lasting a few days, put individuals at risk of losing jobs, incomes and their families. We need reforms to our criminal justice system that focus on improving outcomes for individuals and our society.”
The new Bail Policy issued by Judge Baddour and Judge Cabe incorporates two major reforms recommended by the Working Group: (1) a structured decision-making tool for use by magistrates at the initial appearance immediately after an arrest; and (2) new policy considerations for addressing first-time failures to appear in court for individuals charged with misdemeanor offenses. Both reforms are designed to reduce unnecessary wealth-based detentions. In addition, the Magistrate’s Tool includes significantly revised maximum bond guidelines for all offenses, including probation violation cases.
While the new Bail Policy formalizes these new practices and incorporates statutory requirements as well as local and model policies, Orange County began implementing these reforms in 2020. Significantly, UNC School of Government’s Criminal Justice Innovation Lab facilitated the Working Group’s effort and received a grant to conduct an empirical evaluation of the impact of Orange County’s reforms. The first two quarter evaluation reports have shown high stakeholder fidelity to the reforms and corresponding reductions in the imposition of secured bonds by magistrates and judicial issuance of orders for arrest for a first unexcused missed misdemeanor court date. Notably, the reports show that the number of failures to appear in court decreased post-implementation and no significant increase in new pretrial charges for court-involved individuals.
“We are pleased to be supporting stakeholders in their efforts to improve their local systems and promote a healthier and safer community,” said Innovation Lab Director Jessica Smith. “It’s wonderful to work with a group so committed to both consensus and evidence-based efforts. Criminal justice reform and public safety can go hand in hand. That appears to be true in Orange County, where interim evaluation results show that stakeholders are hitting their key pretrial metrics, including public safety.”
According to Judge Cabe, “Our reforms have resulted in reducing unnecessary pretrial detention. The process of determining when pretrial detention is actually necessary has prompted judicial officials to focus on and ask questions about the statutory factors that indicate when a defendant should be detained pre-trial, such as when they pose an immediate threat to another person or the public at large. This focus on actual risk factors in a specific circumstance rather than simply the category of the charge itself has led to more consistent and better informed decisions about the conditions imposed for pre-trial release.”
Orange County is committed to continuing pretrial reform efforts, safely reducing unnecessary detention and increasing equitable outcomes. This effort will not end with the release of the Bail Policy, when the pandemic is over or when the Lab’s evaluation is completed.
“Effective pretrial reform efforts require constant attention and a lasting commitment to best practices,” said Judge Baddour. “What we thought was the best approach a decade ago, or even a year ago, may not in fact be the best approach. We remain committed to evaluating our work, reviewing the results, and evolving as we learn.”
“Although the COVID pandemic started well after the Pretrial Reform Work Group began its work, its onset created a heightened need for meaningful reform and a reduction in the local jail population,” said Orange and Chatham County District Attorney Jim Woodall. “Many lessons we have learned during the pandemic will be carried forward into the future, and it is important to note that Orange County law enforcement agencies have embraced these reforms and the new Bail Policy."
“Bond is intended to ensure one’s appearance in court, nothing more,” said Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood. “Punishment is intended to begin at conviction, not at arrest. Under our system of justice, a person receives the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in a court of law. As Sheriff, I have to enforce the law as it is written, not as others would prefer it to be. We work very hard to ensure people who don’t need to be in jail aren’t held there unnecessarily. This reduces the strain on our Detention Center staff, the taxpayers of Orange County, and most importantly, the families who would otherwise be affected by having their loved ones incarcerated when such incarceration is not required.”