Black County Officials Call for Pretrial Reform

By Wendy Shang posted 09-20-2018 15:11


In March 2018, the National Organization of Black County Officials (NOBCO) ratified a resolution on pretrial reform, calling on county officials to support the use of evidence-based and locally validated pretrial assessments to assist with pretrial release decisions. County officials were also asked to call for the elimination of commercially secured bonds; to promote training and processes to address best practices; and to identify sources of implicit bias.

We welcome Helen Holton, the executive director of NOBCO, to discuss her personal experience with the bail bond industry and her vision for NOBCO in reforming the pretrial system as a partner of PJI. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

PJI: Can you tell us a little about who you are?

HH: I’m a former member of the Baltimore City Council, where I served for 21 years. My passion is social justice. I’m a certified public accountant (CPA) by training with an MBA. Prior to public service, my career was in business working with Fortune 500 companies to small, minority, women-owned businesses. I ran for office to make a difference in my community and raise the volume on inequality. As the executive director of NOBCO, I continue to do the work I’ve been doing for decades, just in a different role.

As a side note, I’m also an ordained minister and previously worked as a bail bondsperson.

PJI: Oh, you *worked* as a bail bondsperson!

HH: My father was an independent insurance broker and was attracted to the thrill of adventure in bail bonding, including the lucrative profits and incentives. I am my father’s oldest child; essentially his junior. I worked as a bail bondsperson to learn the family business while I was on the City Council. It started off by monitoring the phones at night. If a call came through, it was my responsibility to notify one of the bondspersons affiliated with the family business to go post the bond. Part of my training entailed learning to write and post bails as well. In taking calls, a question I often asked myself was, “Why does someone wait until 11, 12, 1 o’clock in the morning before calling the bondsperson?” If your loved one gets locked up at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, why would you wait until the middle of the night before calling for help?

It all tied together. If you’ve got to get that money together, you need time to gather your resources. You’re doing whatever you got to do to get your loved one out of jail. They’ve been accused, arrested, but not convicted. Just because they don’t have the money, especially for a nonviolent offense, why should they have to stay in jail? So there I found myself in the middle of the night, taking a distress call, because you finally got your 10 percent bail figured out.

After one particularly bad situation, I stopped writing bail. The whole process left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t like going to a grandmother’s house and having her sign over the deed to her home as a guarantee for bail. Knowing she could lose her home out of love in exchange for temporary freedom before trial seemed unjust and predatory.

When I met Cherise, and we began to talk about the work PJI does, I knew this was work NOBCO needed to take on. Cash money bail is not for the good of people. It doesn’t support a system of fairness for all.

PJI: What role can NOBCO play in helping county officials change their pretrial systems?

HH: We started with ratifying the resolution with the principles of 3DaysCount: Reduce arrests, replace cash bail, restrict detention, raise equity. Commissioner Renee Price has already moved the resolution on pretrial reform through her county commission in Orange County, N.C., and our big vision is to have more county officials follow suit.  

Our county officials represent some of the largest urban areas in America to small rural counties with a few thousand people. Thanks to our partnership with PJI, we have a dedicated person to educate and support our members on pretrial issues. Through social media, webinars, and live meetings we’re going to keep people informed. We have an article on 3DaysCount™ in our newsletter that you can find on our website at, and National Association of Black County Officials president Rodney Ellis has written an op-ed on bail for the National Association of Counties newsletter. In an election year, this issue matters. Our push is to get people to act and share this information.

How many more people have to be locked up? Our work is to create a sense of urgency—NOW. It’s a numbers game. The more people we can touch with truth and information empowers them to do more and be more relevant in changing an injust system. The endgame is to impact and change the quality of life for people caught up in the inequity of the pretrial system.

The National Organization of Black County Officials Inc. (NOBCO) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)3 founded in 1982 to provide resources to empower and transform populations into more sustainable communities. It was founded by the National Association of Black County Officials (NABCO) and is an affiliate of the National Association of Counties (NACo).