Dreama Caldwell, a democratic candidate for Alamance County Commissioner, sighed through the phone as she reflected on her 2015 arrest for felony child abuse.
It has been almost five years since the former Chapel Hill daycare manager lost her job and was arrested when one of her employees left a child on a bus that June for several hours.
After turning herself in, Caldwell was granted a $40,000 bail she could not afford to pay. She served 3 days in jail and finished probation, after which she said life only got more difficult.
“Having a criminal record affects everything,” Caldwell said. “You're not left with a lot of choices. I have rejection letters from DoorDash, McDonald's and Bojangles'.”
Alamance and surrounding counties have been debating bail reform for the last 20 years, and Caldwell — who’s running on a bail and criminal justice reform platform — is one of the many advocates who have been through the criminal justice system and now uses their second chance to push for a change in policies for the system they use to be in.
In November of 2019, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of three plaintiffs currently awaiting trial against the Alamance County court officials in regards to alleged unconstitutional bail practices, including infringement on the plaintiffs rights to “equal protection, substantive due process and procedural due process rights, as well as their right to counsel.”
“People are being given bonds they can’t afford with no determination on their ability to pay them,” said Kristie Pucket-Williams, the Regional Field Organizer for the ACLU of North Carolina’s Campaign for Smart Justice and bail reform advocate. “Alamance County has some of the highest rates in the state of people being held pretrial.”
Pucket-Williams has experienced high bail bonds personally. In 2009, she was arrested for trafficking and drug related charges and was held pretrial.
Like Caldwell, Pucket-Williams was given bail which she could not afford to pay. But in her case, it was $167,000.
Studies from the ACLU show that people in pretrial incarceration are more likely to plead guilty whether they are or not, just to get out from behind bars.
During her pretrial incarceration, Pucket-Williams was pregnant with twins, and she received no prenatal care. She told WBTV she took a plea deal so she could give birth five days later. Since then, Pucket-Williams has worked with the ACLU to fight for bail reform and advocate for people in situations similar to her own.
The ACLU’s lawsuit argues that the “Defendants’ policies and practices violate the equal protection and due process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment because they result in poor arrestees being detained when similarly situated but wealthier arrestees are allowed to go free.”
The lawsuit also argues that these procedures put poor people at a disadvantage and that they do not have as easy access to a fair trial and to build a strong defense.
“If someone is being held pretrial, it takes 2-3 days for people to start losing their jobs, their homes, and even custody of their children,” Pucket-Williams said. “A person who has the money goes home, and the person who doesn't stay in jail.”
The case leaves Pucket-Williams hopeful of the change the lawsuit can bring to Alamance and other counties across North Carolina.
“We would like to see counties consider a person's ability to pay, that a person has access to an attorney at their first appearance, and that they are made aware of their rights,” she said. “I am someone who is directly impacted by the bail industry and the practices, and it’s very important for me to see these changes happen all across the state.”
Questions of bail reforms impact on public safety, victim welfare, and taxpayer money have made this issue a concern for local people involved in the criminal justice industry like Graham bail bondsman Robert Davis.
“Not everybody deserves to be in jail, but at the same time not everyone deserves to be released before trial,” said Davis. “You risk endangering the public and the victims for some of these crimes.”
In 2018, California overturned its cash-based bail system, essentially eliminating the bail bond industry in the state. The California Assembly Appropriations Committee estimated that this bill will have fiscal consequences of hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
“If they do miss court, it’s on the bondsman to go out and arrest that person, or pay the bond,” said Davis. “It’s also on us to file a civil suit against that person after we pay the bond.”
Bail bondsmen who post bail for accused citizens are acting as an insurance policy for the courts. This means communities don’t have to spend time, money and resources through law enforcement to retrieve people dodging their court date.
“Bail bonding isn’t the problem. We are a private industry that helps people and the courts,” said Davis. “95% of my clients don’t have the means to pay a $10,000 bond.”
But Davis does recognize the difficulties of the criminal justice system like the lack of help repeat offenders with mental health issues receive.
“When it comes to people's mental state, they have either not been medicated or don’t have the resources they need,” Davis said. “Instead of doing the same song and dance, why don’t we send them to somebody to get them a diagnosis or medication?”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2 million people in America with serious mental illness are sent to jails every year, and 81% of those inmates do not receive necessary treatment.
“I talk to people who are incarcerated with mental health issues,” said Caldwell, telling a story about a man she was in contact with who had been diagnosed with a serious anxiety disorder only after his 6th time being arrested. “He had never been told about his anxiety. If we can get to the root of the problem, people can get out of the broken system.”
In the meantime while the ACLU lawsuit plays out in court, Caldwell and others in her line of work who have been through the criminal justice system remain optimistic about the future of reform.
“I tend to meet other people who work in social justice who have been incarcerated a lot,” Caldwel said. “None of us are extremely wealthy, we get by. But to see their ability and to see their work is proof that what we do is the right thing to do.”
The preliminary injunction hearing for the ACLU Lawsuit against Alamance County court officials is Mar. 16, 2020.