Year-Long Effort to Bring Reform of How and When People are Jailed Before Trial in Wake County

Front entrance of Wake County Justice Center at twilight

Every day in the U.S., nearly half a million people sit in jail awaiting trial. They haven’t been convicted, they’re legally innocent, but some simply can’t afford the cash bail needed so they can be released until their court date. While in jail, they can end up losing their jobs, homes or custody of their children – all at an estimated cost to taxpayers of about $14 billion a year. This costly practice means that wealth can unfairly determine whether someone is let out of jail or not, which creates inequality and puts the poor at a disadvantage.

That’s why, for the past year, Wake County has worked with Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research, a nationwide initiative led by more than a dozen organizations, to identify pretrial improvements that might help reduce the local jail population, increase the efficiency of the court system, and ensure that pretrial practices promote equity and fairness while not jeopardizing public safety. The project team has now released its recommendations.

“The goal of the project is to ensure that those individuals who should not be in jail during the pretrial period are released from custody with the appropriate pretrial release conditions,” said Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, Project Chair. “We are committed to building a pretrial system for Wake County that promotes fairness and equity by balancing community safety, concern for victims, and the rights and needs of individuals facing criminal charges.”

A steering committee made up of judges, lawyers, law enforcement, elected and government officials, as well as victim advocates, has been meeting monthly since September 2020, receiving coaching from a dedicated technical assistant to guide the group through the process. The committee has presented six recommendations:

  • To implement a standardized decision-making process for magistrates when reviewing bail conditions at the initial appearance;
  • To implement during the first appearance the Public Safety Assessment, which provides an objective, validated tool for understanding a person’s likelihood of success when released before the trial begins;
  • To increase pretrial support services and allocate resources to those who need assistance the most;
  • To review and use the pretrial jail status report developed by the Wake County Sheriff’s Office, which provides a list of jail residents and identifies people whose cases can be considered for additional review;
  • To lower the minimum suggested secured bond amounts for certain types of offenses; and
  • To provide representation from the Public Defender’s Office at first appearance hearings.

The full report from the committee is available here.

“These recommendations will help protect our residents, afford everyone a fair trial, and avoid excessive bail requirements that unnecessarily imprison low-wealth individuals,” said Wake County Commissioner Matt Calabria, who served on the committee. “We are working to give those returning to our community the best possible chance at productive, law-abiding citizenship by connecting them with job placement programs, bus passes for transportation to court proceedings, and behavioral health services.”

The recommendations were presented to Judge Paul Ridgeway, who is the Senior Resident Superior Court Judge for the 10th Judicial District (Wake County). Judge Ridgeway has issued a revised Pretrial Release Administrative Order, effective April 1, 2022, which incorporates these recommendations. The Court stakeholders will implement these recommendations in early April and provide outreach and education sessions to community organizations and the Wake County Bar Association.

APPR is a project of the National Partnership for Pretrial Justice. APPR provides technical assistance, peer support and team-based resources to Learning Sites committed to improving pretrial justice. Learning Sites partner with APPR to examine their pretrial systems, identify pretrial improvements and implement the Public Safety Assessment (PSA). The PSA supports a person’s liberty interest and pretrial release by providing pretrial decision-makers with research-based information about the likelihood of a person’s pretrial success.

Press Release