Over the last few months, I've spoken to many residents of Halifax County regarding my campaign for superior court judge.
Time after time, many of the questions I receive are related to a perception that the bonds our judicial officials set in Halifax County are inconsistent or unusually low.
It seems that the court system in Halifax has failed to educate citizens regarding how conditions of pretrial release are set, and whose responsibility it is to oversee those policies.
The purpose of this press release is to lay bare the laws related to pretrial bonds, to identify who is locally responsible for our bond policies, and to outline what I would do as superior court judge to address the public's concerns.
I've practiced law in Halifax County for the last 12 years, and served as a prosecutor for the Halifax County DA's Office for two years before that. While I'm absolutely familiar with the laws and policies related to bonds here in Halifax, I feel that the public deserves a thorough, publicly-accessible explanation.
Like every county, Halifax County has a bond policy. This policy is set by the local superior court judge.
Ideally, this policy should list ranges of suggested bonds depending on the level of the offense with which a defendant is charged, and include other provisions to aid judicial officials in setting appropriate amounts.
By state statute, every judicial district is required to have one of these policies in writing — see N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-535.
While many counties' bond policies are available publicly online, unfortunately, Halifax County's is not.
District court judges are encouraged to follow the superior court judge's bond policy, as are the magistrates who initially issue those bonds when criminal defendants are arrested.
Those same magistrates are overseen by our chief district court judge, who for Halifax County, is currently Judge Brenda Branch.
Judge Branch is one of my opponents in this race for superior court.
Regardless, to the extent that magistrates are setting bonds contrary to the policy set by the superior court judge, it is literally the job of the chief district court judge to discipline the magistrates for doing so — N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A-173.
All of that said, we cannot expect our local court system to hold someone under bond for years without handling their cases.
That’s not the purpose of bond in criminal cases, and our jail cannot possibly hold everyone charged in this county forever if the courts refuse to bring those individuals to trial.
Currently there are hundreds of defendants in this county who are out on bond.
We have people awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges for over four years, for sexual assaults even longer.
To give a specific example, in January of this year, Halifax County finally tried a man for the sexual assault of a child where the defendant had been out on bond since 2008.
You don't have to have a law degree to know that that's not justice — it's not fair to the accused and their families, and it's not fair to the victims of those crimes.
We have to get back to the process of resolving cases, and we have to clear out the backlog of cases that are functionally unable to be tried.
Right now, there are a host of criminal charges currently pending in Halifax County that are most likely impossible to prosecute, simply because too much time has passed since they occurred. The court system has lost contact with the necessary victims, witnesses, and even law enforcement officers because they have given up, moved away, or in some cases even died while waiting for their case to be heard.
What I can tell you is this, if I am elected as superior court judge for Halifax County, I am going to make it my point to be radically transparent regarding any bond reductions or bond increases. If I make a change to a bond in a criminal case, I will issue written findings regarding my reasoning, which will be placed in the court file.
The purpose of this is to make it easy for local media to find out why a change was made to a defendant’s bond — for instance, if the state is failing to prosecute the case, or if the defendant received new charges.
The media will merely have to go to the clerk’s office and request to review the public file.
If elected as superior court judge, I will also completely overhaul the current bond policy. Revising the county's bond policy will literally "be my job."
By taking these actions, my hope is that I can restore a modicum of faith in our court system. We have to believe that our courts and our judicial officials are going to treat every person fairly and appropriately, whether they are a victim, a witness, or the person charged with a crime.
Our judicial officials have to put in the work to communicate this information to the public, and to show that we are doing our jobs to protect law-abiding people in their everyday lives.