In North Carolina, it costs inmates $10 a day to stay in jail before they’re even found guilty of a crime. Yet most people jailed pretrial are there because they can’t afford bail. It’s a predicament Mecklenburg County Public Defender Kevin Tully points out time and again to judges: that those who can’t buy their own freedom are charged for their own confinement.
In North Carolina, as in other states, judges have the discretion to reduce or waive some fines and fees. But there, as elsewhere, they don’t often use it—thanks in part to legislation that makes doing so difficult. Now, district-court judges in Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte, are banding together to change how the courts impose fines and fees.
Starting last month, they committed to consulting a “bench card” during every case—a piece of paper they use to remind themselves to thoroughly assess a defendant’s ability to pay before setting a fine or fee, as well as which ones are waivable or can be reduced on a sliding scale. It’s a simple act, but one that could have significant consequences for low-income defendants and their families.
In an interview, Tully cited a recent case where a judge’s discretion had positive consequences for his client. A few months ago, the client was in jail on a trespassing charge, and he couldn’t make a $100 down payment to a bail bondsman. After seven days—and a $70 tab—he had a hearing to review his pretrial conditions. Tully remembers telling the judge that his client’s court date was still two weeks away. “If you don’t allow him to go home today because he doesn’t have the $100 to pay for his freedom, at his trial he will have run up a bill of $210 to stay in jail,” Tully said. “How on Earth is this court going to expect him to pay [that] when he can’t pay $100?”