The Smoky Mountain News reports:

Beginning Jan. 1, 2019, Haywood and Jackson counties will be the first judicial district in the state to pilot a pretrial release program aimed at reducing the local jail populations, recidivism rates and increasing 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. 

“No one is being soft on crime — we want to be smart on crime,” said Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts, who is leading the implementation of the program in the 30B Judicial District. “This will provide stability and safety for the community but in a thoughtful way while also being mindful of the costs for the county and taxpayers.” …

Judge Letts has been at the forefront of the effort and has worked toward getting all the stakeholders on board, including the District Attorney’s Office, defense attorneys, law enforcement, judges and clerks of court.

“I made a point in the beginning to get everyone involved in the process. We’ve had everyone at the table to get everyone’s comments and feedback,” he said. “Feedback has been positive — we feel like we have a good collaborative effort going.” …

How it will work

The pretrial release pilot program will only involve people charged with low-level offenses — things like simple drug possession, writing worthless checks, misdemeanor larceny or shoplifting. Beginning Jan. 1, the Judicial District 30B, which includes Haywood and Jackson counties, will have a new pretrial release policy that will allow judges to set an unsecured bond.

“We’ll be dealing with folks committing nonviolent crimes and have small bond amounts. We’re not talking about violent crime and serious offenses — those people will continue to receive secured bonds,” Letts said. …

The pilot program means that low-level offenders identified through the program will be given an unsecured bond, which means they will be released after booking and processing and only have to pay the bond if they fail to appear for their court date. 

“The county and taxpayers have to pay to house those people in addition to accommodating their medical expenses, but also keeping them in jail is impacting them and their ability to work and provide for themselves and their families and everything else they have a responsibility to do.”

In addition to setting more unsecured bonds for low-level offenses, Letts said he was exploring the idea of providing legal counsel sooner for indigent defendants. He said it’s been typical for defendants not to get a court-appointed lawyer until their first court date, which could be a few days or a couple of weeks after being arrested and incarcerated. 

However, he would like to implement a new 72-hour policy to make sure defendants charged with a misdemeanor or felony speak to a lawyer within 72 hours of arrest. Currently, there is only a rule to ensure people charged with a felony get a bond hearing within 96 hours. 

“We’re going to explore the possibility of providing counsel at an earlier stage to folks who have been charged so there can be a bond hearing to address the issues of pretrial release,” he said. “We want to see everybody within 72 hours.” …

“They would not only assist the defendant charged but would also help the district attorney prosecutors and judge better understand the issues at hand — the person’s stability, ties to the community, their criminal history and whether they’re a flight risk,” Letts said. …

“My hope is this will not only benefit people in cases but also benefit the court system by moving people through the court system quicker,” Letts said. “It will also benefit victims if cases are heard sooner and resolved sooner. I hope it will increase the efficiency of the courts, which will benefit everybody.”

In the article, Jesi Stone provides a lot of detail about the program, and about pretrial reform in general. If you’re interested in criminal justice reform, you should definitely read the whole thing.