Standing in a staggered formation in front of the grey Durham County Detention Center and below equally grey overcast skies, two dozen bail reform advocates gathered to rebuke a new pretrial release policy put in place Thursday by two Durham judges, expressing their growing dissatisfaction with both officials.
Southerners on New Ground (SONG), Black Youth Project (BYP100), All of Us or None, Durham for All, and the Transformative Justice League have been working for over a year with the community and public officials to end the use of money bail in Durham.
“We clearly did not get what we wanted from this policy,” said Serena Sebring, a regional organizing lead with SONG. “We would like to take this opportunity to be even more clear about what it is we want. We want an end to the use of money as a ransom that holds our people in cages.”
SONG, along with its coalition partners, oppose the money bail system on the grounds that if people are truly innocent until proven guilty, they should not be punished before they are tried, and that whether someone is detained pretrial should not be a function of their wealth.
The organizers also take serious issue with the judges’ assertion that money bail systems are required to ensure public safety.
“What we do know is you can end money bail because money bail is not really a public safety issue, as the new policy states,” said Andrea Hudson, member of All of Us or None and director of the NC Community Bail Fund of Durham. “If poor people had the money to get out of jail, they would do so no matter what their charges may be. The fact that they are forced to stay in jail because they don’t have the money means that you’re criminalizing the poor.”
Those present at the jail Friday argued that the new policy does not go far enough. Instead, they assert that it criminalizes mental health and drug use, and focuses on a risk-based assessment rather than a needs-based assessment to determine whether or not an individual should be released before their trial.
AJ Williams, a member of BYP100: Durham, said that the judges’ attempt at reforming money bail is not only inadequate but will eventually cause more harm to the most marginalized communities.
“Judge Hudson and Judge Evans have shamelessly presented us with a poorly executed document, that does not address our demands for a needs-assessment, but instead colluded to design policies that create more harm. Policies, when enacted, will increase surveillance of our communities and continue to perpetuate the destruction of black and brown families, who overwhelmingly face disparities within the prison industrial complex.” Williams said.
Durham judges have used a bond schedule to help them set pretrial release conditions to set since 2011. That policy – written by Hudson and then Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey – remained unchanged until Thursday.
Among the major differences between the 2011 bond schedule and the new policy includes a “checklist for magistrates.” This protocol, which seemingly works like a flowchart, recommends options to judges ranging from written promises to secured bonds based on whether or not any risk-assessment boxes such as “defendant has insufficient ties to the community” or “charged offense involves distribution of drugs” are checked.
The release of this bail and pretrial reform policy comes after an election cycle in which money bail became a central issue in races for district attorney and judgeships. During her campaign, District Attorney Satana Deberry said that among her top priorities upon entering office was an expanded pretrial release policy.
In a statement Friday, Deberry applauded the judges’ new policy, and said her own office is working on “developing and redefining” an internal policy for prosecutors to follow in recommending pretrial release decisions to judges, who have the final say.
“I commend Judge Hudson and Judge Evans for pushing Durham toward a system in which detention is no longer wealth-based, a system in which we determine who is jailed and who is free based on actual danger to our community and risk of flight rather than the amount of money to which one has access,” Deberry wrote. “ … In recent months, the internal policy of the District Attorney’s office has resulted in a steadily decreasing jail population, while the most dangerous individuals remain confined. In the months and years ahead, we will continue to strive toward a system of justice that ensures safety without sacrificing equity.”
But, groups gathered at the jail Friday said they want a justice system without money bail.
Raising their fists in solidarity with several drivers who honked as they passed by, the advocates invoked the names of the nine people who have died since 2012 in the Durham jail, where the majority of detainees are being held pretrial.
“In the name of the good who have died behind the Durham County jail walls,” Williams said, “we demand the complete eradication of the money bail system.”