Over the last year, momentum has been building in Durham—as in other parts of the U.S.—to curtail the use of money bail.  

The reform movement was central to the 2018 elections, with Durham voters backing candidates for sheriff, district attorney, and judicial seats who wanted to use cash bail only as a last resort. The Durham chapter of LGBTQ organization Southerners on New Ground, meanwhile, is nearly a year into a bail-abolition campaign. The ACLU is waging the same battle statewide, and the N.C. Court Commission, comprised of legislators and court officials, recently tasked a subcommittee with examining the state’s bail system. 

But people in Durham and throughout North Carolina are still in jail not because they’ve been convicted of a crime, but because they can’t afford to get out. 

In 2012, Andrea “Muffin” Hudson was one of them, detained for fifty-one days in the Durham County Detention Facility on a $30,000 bail after being arrested on fraud charges that were later expunged. When she got out, she decided that no one else should go through that experience. 

In July, Hudson established the North Carolina Community Bail Fund of Durham, which raises money to free people being held pretrial at the Durham jail. It’s an “underground railroad,” she says, “until we abolish money bail.”

Under state law, a secured bond—which has to be paid, usually with the help of a bail bondsman, before detainees can be released before trial—should be used only if release with a written promise to appear in court, an unsecured bond (paid only if detainees fail to come to court), or release with electronic ankle monitoring won’t ensure that detainees won’t skip court, harm others, or interfere with their case while awaiting trial.

But that’s not always what happens. 

About 86 percent of people in North Carolina jails are being held pretrial, usually because they can’t afford to pay their bail. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, about 60 percent of those detained at the Durham jail in 2016 were held pretrial, and about a quarter of the jail population was held on a bond of $5,000 or less.

Studies have shown that people held pretrial are more likely to plead guilty or be convicted. Their time behind bars can jeopardize their housing and employment—Hudson lost both her house and her job while locked up—and custody of their kids. On the other hand, people who can afford bail are able to return to their lives and prepare for their court cases from the outside. 

“We wouldn’t need the bail fund if we followed the statute in the state of North Carolina,” Hudson says.

According to the National Bail Fund Network, an umbrella organization of pro-reform organizers, advocates, and legal advisers, more than fifty community bail funds have sprung up across the country. Since its launch this summer, the N.C. Community Bail Fund of Durham has bailed three people out of the Durham jail. 

Here’s how it works. Friends or family of a person detained in the Durham jail fill out a form to seek assistance from the fund. Hudson uses donations to pay the person’s bail—the full amount, not using a bondsman—and once that person attends their court date, she requests a refund from the court. When the case is resolved, which in Hudson’s experience usually takes about six months, the money goes back into the fund to be used again for a new detainee. 

The fund only assists those with bails of $2,000 or less, which tends to limit its use to less serious charges, such as trespassing and low-level marijuana charges, and allows it to help more people. The fund will track whether each person returns to court, the outcome of their case, the number of days it takes for the case to be resolved (as a measure of taxpayer savings for not jailing the person), and what percentage of donations are recycled back to the fund. 

Among people released through Durham County’s pretrial services program, 94 percent returned for court in fiscal year 2016. Ninety-five percent of people freed using donations to the National Bail Fund Network have made their court dates.  

“The thing we recognize is bail funds have reported [being] as effective, if not more effective, than pretrial services and at a lower cost,” says Henry Baird, an advisory council member for the Durham fund.

While getting the fund up and running, Hudson worked to convince judges to issue unsecured bonds so that people could be released with a promise to return for their court date, saving about $250,000 in bail costs over time, she estimates. (The judges knew her, she says, through another program she runs, Participatory Defense, which helps people navigate the court system.) The fund held its first bailout in October, and fundraising has stepped up since. Through a national social media campaign, it raised $8,200 on New Year’s Day; that amount could be doubled by matches through the National Bail Fund Network. Donations go toward bail as well as Hudson’s salary as its director and only employee. 

Baird says Hudson’s work goes far beyond just cutting a check, because bailing people out without offering them support afterward could be more detrimental than leaving them behind bars. 

“It’s actually a lot of time spent supporting people who are stuck in the criminal justice system because they’re poor,” he says.

With the help of friends and volunteers, Hudson ensures that the people bailed out have what they need to be successful: a reminder to go to court, a ride there, childcare during court proceedings, or, in the case of a homeless man recently freed by the fund, help finding a room in a local shelter and transportation to appointments. 

“I want to at least try to make them whole,” Hudson says.

Donations to the fund and requests for assistance can be made at nccbailfund.org.

Contact staff writer Sarah Willets by phone at 919-286-1972, by email at swillets@indyweek.com, or on Twitter @sarah_willets.