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Lawyers needed for pretrial pilot program

Tom Maher, executive director for Indigent Defense Services Office of North Carolina, speaks to lawyers Brad Ferguson and Karla Wood about the pretrial release program. Jessi Stone photo Tom Maher, executive director for Indigent Defense Services Office of North Carolina, speaks to lawyers Brad Ferguson and Karla Wood about the pretrial release program. Jessi Stone photo

The success of a pretrial release program being piloted in Jackson and Haywood county’s judicial district hinges on a handful of lawyers being willing to dedicate at least one day a week to handling first appearances for indigent clients. 

The program, which is supposed to launch Jan. 1, 2019, aims to reduce local jail populations, recidivism rates and increase the efficiency of the court system. The program will include a new policy encouraging judges to set more unsecured bonds for people charged with nonviolent, low-level offenses so they can be released from jail while they await their court date. It also aims to move people more quickly through the system, which is why lawyers are needed to be part of the program. 

Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts, who is spearheading the implementation of the program in the 30B Judicial District, has witnessed the unintended consequences of people being detained pretrial. According to an article in the Stanford Law Review, defendants detained before they go to trial are 25 percent more likely than their counterparts to plead guilty, 43 percent more likely to be sentenced to jail time and are more likely to commit future crimes.

The Indigent Defense Services Office of North Carolina is working to educate lawyers about the program and sign them up to be represent indigent clients just for their first appearance. IDS Executive Director Tom Maher recently visited the district to talk to local lawyers about how the program will work. 

Only four lawyers showed up to the informational session in Haywood, which Maher said could be enough to make the program work. Ideally, there would be one lawyer dedicated to each day of court, but lawyers could also choose multiple days if they wanted. In the morning, the lawyer will receive a list of first appearances and by 2 p.m. is expected to gather as much information about the case from the defendant and the District Attorney’s Office to represent the defendant for his or her first appearance. 

It’s a tall order for lawyers depending on how many defendants are on the docket for court that day. Waynesville lawyer Jim Moore said he’s interested in the participating in the pretrial release program as he’s had three stints on the court-appointed defense list throughout his law career and spends a lot of time at the jail visiting clients. 

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“I certainly hope the program will be a success. We had a pretrial release program prior to this and it worked well — it’s not in existence now because the legislature decided to defund it,” Moore said. “Now it’s just left up to the DAs to check to see if there are people in jail on small bonds for small offenses and then they can approach the judge to ask for them to be released — but that’s not really the DA’s job to do that.”

Lawyers have reservations about whether one day is enough time to be able to gather enough information to make a meaningful difference during a first appearance. 

Maher said it may not be enough time for all cases — and that’s OK. The goal is to hopefully get through the easy cases quickly and get people out of jail that don’t need to be there simply because they can’t make their bail. Right now defendants can sit in jail for weeks or months waiting to meet their lawyer in court. 

“The trick here is getting enough info to provide a meaningful case for a pretrial release but doing it quick enough to make a real difference in the system,” Maher said. “If you can do that in one day you can, but some will take more time. We hope this will show that with someone focused on it, in a short time it can make a difference. It’s not perfect and you’re under the gun, but it can make a difference.”

Lawyers interested in the program also had questions about how much they would be paid to dedicate an entire day away from their private practices. Maher said the hourly rate for first appearance lawyers will be $60, which is the same as the standard rate paid to court-appointed lawyers working low level felony cases. 

“You’ll receive a minimum of two hours of pay even if there’s no work that day because you’ve kept that day open,” he said. 

If it’s determined a case needs more time, Maher said the defendant would be given a court-appointed lawyer who may or not be the lawyer who represented them for the first appearance through the pilot program. 

“You’re just committing to one day. If it’s not resolved that day they will be given a court-appointed lawyer. It might be you but you’re not committing to taking them on,” Maher clarified. 

Part of the pilot program will include funding to analyze how the pilot program is working. That analysis will be supported by Professor Jessica Smith at UNC School of Government and Jamie Vaske, assistant professor at Western Carolina University’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Vaske said she’d be evaluating whether these changes will impact failures to appear or new criminal justice involvement for defendants who are released during the pretrial phase of processing, and whether these changes impact the number of people in local facilities and total jail costs for pretrial defendants.  

“My goal — although ambitious — is to provide feedback to the stakeholders on a quarterly basis so we can respond to any implementation issues early before they snowball,” she said. “In terms of judging things as a success or failure, I will be analyzing court and jail data from Jan. 1, 2016, forward as well so I will be comparing how are we currently doing relative to how we were doing in the past. The labels of success or failure, I will leave up to Judge Letts and the stakeholders to define as they are the ones implementing the policy.”

For lawyers interested in learning more about the program, contact Maher at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 919.354.7200.

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