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Inside Criminal Justice

A Call for Reforming the Nation's Costly Pretrial Detention System

June 2, 2011 12:01:44 am
Comments (6)

Photo by Joe Gratz via Flickr

Offering judges a more scientific basis for deciding who can be released before trial was among the suggestions for changing the $9 billion jail system at a blue-ribbon conference in Washington, headed by Attorney General Eric Holder.

A chorus of critics from Attorney General Eric Holder on down assailed the money bail system in the United States at a two-day pretrial justice conference that ended yesterday in Washington, D.C. Many of the hundreds of thousands of inmates in county jails awaiting trial are accused non-violent, nonfelony offenders who are behind bars only because they can't afford to post the bail required to get out—often just a few hundred dollars, Holder said.

The conference was sponsored by Holder's Justice Department, along with the nonprofit Pretrial Justice Institute, partly in memory of a similar event organized by Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1964.

The jail system costs 9 billion taxpayer dollars annually, much of which could be saved by using recognized tools to measure the risks that a defendant will not return for required court appearances if released, Holder and other speakers contended.

Experiments in helping judges make better decisions on who can safely be released before trial are under way in several jurisdictions around the U.S., but the prevalent bail system based on money, in which insurance companies collect from defendants bail amounts set by judges in return for ensuring that the suspect returns to court are entrenched in most courts, "like a creature that will not die," complained Judge Truman Morrison of Washington, D.C.

Morrison said the system is unscientific and that most judges "guess" in setting bail figures. "It's utterly random," he said.

About two-thirds of the nation's 3,000 counties lack organized pretrial services programs that use evidence-based approaches to handling pretrial releases, said Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, whose agency supported the conference.

Attendees represented a broad swath of the criminal justice system, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, and jail administrators. They made a long list of suggestions to improve the system, including thorough evaluations of new pretrial detainees and better decisions by prosecutors on filing appropriate criminal charges earlier in the process.

Judge William Dressel, president of the Nevada-based National Judicial College, called for "transparent" decision making by judges--"letting the accused offender know what happened [in setting bail] and why it happened." A representative of the bail bond industry, Dennis Bartlett of the Virginia-based American Bail Coalition, appeared on one panel but did not speak in the conference's concluding session.

Although funds for new criminal justice programs are scarce, some speakers suggested that the current economic picture should be an incentive to adopt more cost-efficient programs.

"There is a moment here we should take advantage of," said Michael Jacobson, president of the Vera Institute of Justice, which advocates improved pretrial release programs. Jacobson urged advocates to focus public attention on "the unnecessary, harmful incarceration of people who can't afford" to gain release.


Ted Gest is Contributing Editor of The Crime Report, and president of Criminal Justice Journalists

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Posted by Kayra
Sunday, March 25, 2012 10:03

Jeremey, you are just not looking for the SILVER LINING in all this.Now, when a woman wants to get rid of her vausibe husband, just call the authorities when he passes out drunk with his best friends and declare them GAY! 5 years of freedom!Don’t like the president? Start talking about his homosexual tendencies… Look how he walks, clearly he is HOMOSEXUAL! (Now, Nigeria can lean on the rumour mill to overthrow the government, instead of paying for all those bullets and guns!)Don’t like how your history teacher graded you last paper? Just declare you saw her snogging another female teacher behind the school… Go old school with it, get a group of shrill friends to go along you with and pass out as you speak of their horrible crimes… namely that not only are the lesbians, but they tried to recruit you and your friends in the “woods” and they’re witches too!Tired of Dad’s curfew? You saw him get it on with the next door neighbour Fabio look-a-like after doing copious amounts of drugs that they made you prostitute yourself for!Don’t like your tailor’s last outfit he made for you… CLEARLY he is gay, as only gay men are into fashion… damn Western values! They told us it was a poverty alleviation scheme, but it was just a front to turn Nigerian men GAY!Tired of the man at the market ripping you off? Just hide a butt plug in his fruits and veggies, and then call over the police to discover it! Stick around and watch the fun as he is carted away for 5 years!See Jeremey, so many of Nigeria’s problems can be rectified with this law… Clearly the fear of witchcraft has not been enough of an incentive to clean Nigeria up… If you need more great ideas, just look up McCarthy trials and Salam witch hunt on Wikepedia and don’t forget the BIBLE or KORAN! They are always good for quotations out of context!But if you insist on Pierre Trudeau’s approach of “The state has no business in the bedrooms of its citizens”, well I can’t fault you for your limited vision of freedom…

Posted by Gizzel
Saturday, March 24, 2012 09:16

Since 1990, the US population has grown by 60,000,000 llagely counted citzens. Add to that the estimated current 13 to 20 million illegal residents, some that make up to 25 percent of our jail and prison populations, a doubling on jail inmates is not that shocking over a 30 year period. Government run, tax payer funded pretrial release services, should work with those that are truly indigent. It should not replace the private surety bail system that cost the tax payers not one dollar.

Posted by Forever
Thursday, December 15, 2011 03:52

I could read a book about this without finding such real-world apprcoahes!

Posted by Jamie
Thursday, June 09, 2011 01:39

There truly is not a better time for this kind of reform then now. States are strapped with billion dollar corrections budgets and it is time to trim those budgets by reducing your pre-trial populations. In Connecticut we have done just that. With a Vailidated Risk Tool, Connecticut’s pre-trial staff have reduced our failure to appear rate to 11% and this has nothing to do with guessing. We have shown that we can reliably predict appearance in court and do so with even with the more riskier offenses. Connecticut has closed two prisons and is looking to close a third, tell me how many States are able to do this?

Posted by TME
Monday, June 06, 2011 10:50

Nothing is ever as simple as a@aol.com has tried to express. I wonder from where his/her info is obtained re: the need for only ssn, few data elements, etc. for a judge to make an informed decision about pretrial release. And, how it is that he/she knows what Pretrial thinks, for that matter! Remember to always get multiple, varying, opinions to be better informed =)

Posted by a@aol.com
Thursday, June 02, 2011 06:00

these pretrial folks have been promising evidence based since the 70’s. the technology is available, except if it were used, the pretrial industry workers would be no longer needed. you see – put a social security number in the computer, and a persons entire life history pops up on a computer screen. humans not needed. the pretrial folks don’t want to put themselves out of business, so they continue to suck the taxpayer dry with promises. by god, a judge only needs 8 or 10 data elements about a person to decide bail release. its not very hard and it works every single day most everywhere where judges abide by the constitution and not these unnecessary extra man-made hurdles/steps. pretrial thinks judges are dumb and need goody 2 shoes “expertise” and that the cops routine arrest rate is 75% innocents, 25% criminals. bail was designed for the occasional innocent wrongfully arrested.

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