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Bail considerations: from subjective guesses to math-based formulas

Some of our readers in North Carolina and elsewhere weaned on cop shows and police-station dramas and old enough to remember some of the classics (Dragnet, anyone? Hill Street Blues?) can probably run through a judge's spiel on bail just about as well as, well, a judge.

Does the defendant have ties to the local community that render him -- or sometimes her -- less of a risk to flee? Does the defendant have a steady job? A demonstrated history of alcohol or drug abuse, or violence, perhaps? Is the defendant married? With children?

The long-tenured presumption of many judges, magistrates and commissioners overseeing bail has been that a select list of enumerated factors is generally applicable in most bail matters and serves as a predictor of whether a defendant will flee a jurisdiction, reoffend or perhaps hurt another person.

In fact, and as noted in a recent New York Times article on bail predictors and outcomes, setting bail is often a difficult and thankless task for judges. As the Times points out, "there is little science behind the bail decisions" made many thousands of times each day across the country.

That is changing in some regions of the country, though, with a new algorithm-based bail tool called the Public Safety Assessment (PSA) being used in some areas -- including Mecklenburg County, where the tool just completed a year-long trial. The new assessment operates on the assumption that many factors often considered by judges -- the aforementioned employment status and drug/alcohol history, for example -- are largely irrelevant in ascertaining outcomes.

What proponents of the PSA tool say does seem to work to a greater degree is reliance on a very few factors, most centrally criminal record, a defendant's age and evidence of prior failures to show in court when scheduled to do so.

Bail is often an important consideration for any criminal suspect and an aspect of the criminal justice process where input from a proven lawyer can make a material difference in an outcome.

In Mecklenburg County, questions or concerns regarding bail can be directed to an experienced Charlotte criminal defense attorney.

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