Mecklenburg County, NC – Offenders accused of violent crimes in Mecklenburg County are increasingly being issued summonses to appear in court, rather than having warrants issued for their arrest.
Mecklenburg County Chief Magistrate Khalif Rhodes, who is vying for the District Court Judge seat against the county’s senior district attorney, Karen McCallum, said that the bail system punishes low-income people accused of criminal offenses, WFAE reported.
“We as a county have a bail policy that has fundamental issues that directly affects poor people, and if we want to change racial and ethnic disparities… we have to have to make changes to the policy,” Rhodes said during a recent candidate’s forum.
“Our court system has a history of discriminating against people of color,” Rhodes said, according to the Vote411 Voter Guide. “I believe that implicit biases contribute significantly to discrimination. Additionally, those biases lead to disparate impacts on people of color at an alarming rate.”
He and other critics of the traditional bail bond system argue that low-income people who are unable to post bond are being punished before they are convicted, WFAE reported.
They either have to stay in jail, or forfeit a portion of their funds – usually 10 percent of their bail amount – to a bail bondsman.
As a chief magistrate, Rhodes oversees 34 other magistrates who are tasked with deciding whether to issue criminal summonses or arrest warrants. They also often set bail amounts.
This past summer, one of the magistrates issued a summons to a man accused of felony second-degree forcible rape, WFAE reported.
Back in April, two suspects robbed a convenience store at gunpoint, and one was issued a summons to appear in November for court.
In 2017, a magistrate issued a summons to a man accused of felony child abuse. In that case, the victim’s arm was broken. Two weeks later, the child’s knee was burned.
Not only did the magistrate not issue an arrest warrant – the court also failed to include language on the summons prohibiting the man from having contact with the victim.
Chief District Judge Regan Miller, who oversees Rhodes, said he sees nothing wrong with the growing trend of letting people accused of violent crimes walk the streets while their cases are pending.
“It’s a mindset that we have had historically that if you are charged with a crime you should be arrested and put in jail, pending your trial," Miller told WFAE. "That’s really not what constitutionally we are supposed to be doing as judicial officials, so we are trying to change that culture.”
“I can’t say I’ve seen anywhere where it should have been tougher," Miller said of the magistrates’ decisions. "You know, each magistrate or any other judicial official should use their discretion. They are supposed to look at the information in front of them, and decide what’s appropriate to do.”
McCallum vehemently disagreed.
“For those of you who don’t know what summons are, it’s an invitation to court. It’s usually given to kids who are shoplifting or low-level misdemeanors,” she told WFAE. “The district attorneys get calls several times a week from rape victims whose defendants have been given summons."
"I’m all in for bail reform. But violent defendants should not be given summons to court,” McCallum said.
Retired Superior Court Judge Richard Boner said it was “ridiculous” that an arrest warrant wasn’t issued for someone accused of armed robbery.
“The purpose of release conditions is two-fold," Boner told WFAE. "One is to make sure the person will show up for their court appearance, and the second function is to protect the public while the arrestee’s case is pending.”
“Certainly, a summons for a violent crime like armed robbery doesn’t come close to meeting the second objective,” he added.
Even Charlotte defense attorney Bill Powers questioned the leniency being afforded to people accused of violent offenses, WFAE reported.
“I would say, generally speaking, there are some levels of offenses that may give one pause, or at least take an opportunity to scratch your head and ask what’s going on,” Powers told the news outlet.