Blog Archives

The Department of Justice has designated April 24-30 as National Reentry Week. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has asked all U.S. Attorneys to host a reentry event, including job fairs, family days, father-daughter dances, and mock interview programs, to bring attention to the circumstances and needs of people who return to society after a period of incarceration.

JailDoorThese are vital events, and the focus on people returning to their communities has been a sustained effort by the Department for nearly two decades now. Reentry programs make a difference. That said, improvements in pretrial justice practices could actually reduce the need for these reentry services. How? By reducing the number of people who go to jail pending trial when that incarceration wasn’t vital to public safety. Let’s restrict entry to better address reentry.

Consider what happens during just a few days of pretrial detention to individuals who could have been safely released. Family relationships are strained. Employment, particularly day-to-day or unstable employment, is put in jeopardy. Access to housing, drug treatment, or other social services may be put at risk. These are exactly the areas where reentry work tries to reestablish connections. It doesn’t take long for lives to fall apart while one is in jail, but it can take a great effort to put them back together. (more…)

It is impossible to know how it feels to be a victim of crime if you have never been one. In addition to the loss of property or bodily harm, the experience may also involve psychological trauma that can linger long after property is replaced or wounds heal.

NCVRW2016This is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, and the focus this year is the importance of early intervention in serving victims’ needs. This provides an occasion to reflect upon how, at the pretrial stage of the criminal justice process—the period following arrest but before a case is resolved—systems based on risk address victim needs in ways that money-based systems cannot.

Research and polling have identified crime victims’ most common and pressing needs: to feel safe, to have their voices heard, and to have access to timely and relevant information. (more…)

By Jo-Ann Wallace, President & CEO, National Legal Aid & Defender Association

Embedded within America’s justice system is the promise of due process, a promise broken by pretrial systems that make unnecessary denial of liberty routine. The destabilizing effects on the lives of half a million Americans detained before their trials each year are well-documented, and contribute to the growing consensus that pretrial release is the best option in the absence of public safety concerns. Until we gain access to the proverbial crystal ball, we can’t be absolutely certain that someone will not be arrested again after being released, or if they will attend their trial. Risk assessment tools provide an empirical foundation to help inform release decisions. They represent a significant breakthrough in evidence-based practices with substantial potential to reduce the social harm of unnecessary pretrial detention.

WallaceThere is understandable caution within the public defense community about the growing reliance on risk assessments – a caution not easily understood by policymakers who are impressed both by their release results and by their relatively straightforward implementation. Both perspectives are valid. The mounting research demonstrating lower detention rates when risk assessment tools are utilized cannot be ignored. At the same time, the scrutiny of skeptical defenders is a critical safeguard against improper use and can be a driving force for future improvements in their design. (more…)

By Leah Garabedian, Defender Counsel, The National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA)

3DaysCount is a critically important campaign that stands to change the lives of millions of Americans. With nearly 12 million jail admissions each year and nearly half a million unconvicted people behind bars on any given day, the reach of even short periods of detention is immense. The destabilizing effect of hours—let alone days—in jail is horrific to our communities, our economy and, most importantly, to our families. 

LeahAs a public defender, I spent countless hours in holding cells interviewing clients prior their first appearance before a judge after an arrest. Monday morning interviews were the most painful to experience—people arrested on Fridays who had spent days in jail. They were scared. Anxious. Many times they were mentally ill or suffering from substance use issues or developmental disabilities. Research shows that anywhere between 20 and 80 percent of jail inmates in the U.S. suffer from mental illness and that at least half of incarcerated people have a clinical substance addiction. (more…)

Important and unprecedented legislation was introduced last week that represents a watershed moment in pretrial justice. The “No More Money Bail Act of 2016”, sponsored by Congressman Ted W. Lieu of California, portrays a growing awareness at the federal level of the inherent flaws in criminal justice systems that rely on money bail as a condition of pretrial release. Congressman Lieu’s bill echoes the sentiment of a Statement of Interest filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2015 calling the use of money bail unconstitutional and bad public policy.

A BillThe bill specifies two conditions. First, it would prohibit the use of money bail in the federal pretrial justice system. This would be a welcome move: a benefit to accused individuals, families, communities and victims.While the federal system already developed and validated a pretrial risk assessment instrument and has options for supervised release pending trial, there is great variation across federal districts in its application. The “No More Money Bail Act” will increase the use of legal and evidence-based pretrial practices in federal courts across the nation and ensure equal protection under the law. (more…)

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the Letter from Birmingham Jail in April of 1963 he was detained on money bail. We are lucky that Dr. King used the nine days he was jailed to pen one of his most famous essays, and that his supporters were able to continue his civil rights work in the community throughout his detention. Most defendants who languish in jail before trial sit idle, waiting for uncertain outcomes. When they do get out, they often return to lives that are more unstable than when they went in.

MLK_jailDr. King was aware that he would most likely be arrested for his Birmingham protests and that there would be a financial cost—bail—to be released. In fact, it has been noted that he considered delaying some of his historic Birmingham work because he feared his movement might lose momentum during his detention.

The bail set on Dr. King is an example of how money bail has been used for decades outside of its intended purposes. Like millions of defendants who are in jail today because they lack access to money—disproportionately people of color—Dr. King was neither a risk to public safety nor of pretrial flight. (more…)

PJI recently hosted a webcast on Community Bail Funds for people involved with, interested in, or thinking of starting them. Speakers included PJI Executive Director Cherise Fanno Burdeen, Bronx Freedom Fund Project Director Ezra Ritchin, and Brooklyn Community Bail Fund Executive Director Peter Goldberg.


The negative effects of jail on accused people who cannot afford to purchase their release are well-documented. Within three days, low-risk defendants become more likely to be rearrested or fail to appear in court—simply by having been incarcerated pretrial. We know that jail has a destabilizing effect on people’s employment, housing and family connections. While we work to make policy and practice changes across the country, some communities are once again taking matters into their own hands.

The concept of a community bail fund goes back at least 50 years—to the Vera Institute’s Manhattan Bail Project in the 1960s. Over the past year, we have received a growing number of inquiries about these funds due to an expanding awareness of the money bail system’s many failings and the need for alternatives. Established bail funds exist in New York, Chicago, and Massachusetts and temporary, crowd-sourced bail funds have been formed around social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and Occupy to facilitate the pretrial release of arrested protesters. (more…)

When courts set high cash bail on defendants they consider to be dangerous or unlikely to show up in court, they are engaging in a game of chance much as you or I do when buying a lottery ticket. Just as we are betting the numbers we choose will bring us sudden wealth, the court is betting that the amount they set will be high enough to assure the defendant’s return to court or, unconstitutionally, keep him or her behind bars.

lotteryA recent story from North Carolina shows what happens when these bets collide.

Last February, Marie Holmes won $188 million from the Powerball lottery. Her lump sum winnings of about $88 million promised to be life-changing for the single mother of four, who reportedly supported her family with low-wage jobs at Wal-Mart and McDonald’s.

But the real winners may have been her boyfriend, Lamarr “Hot Sauce” McDow, and the for-profit bail bondsmen she turned to on four separate occasions to keep McDow out of jail.

It began in November 2014 when McDow was charged with trafficking heroin as part of a large sting investigation. Those charges, combined with McDow’s previous convictions for assault and drug possession—and his status as a “verified gang member”—added up to a bail of nearly $3 million, an amount almost certainly intended to keep him incarcerated. And it most likely would have, if not for his girlfriend’s Powerball windfall. (more…)

Late December is typically a time of reflection on the good and the bad of the previous year. For pretrial justice reform, 2015 has been a truly amazing year. If you follow PJI on social media (Facebook and Twitter), then you will have seen some of our “year in review” postings. These include PJI’s #unconvicted photo portrait series, legal victories led by Equal Justice Under Law, the launch of the Pretrial Racial Justice Initiative, and unprecedented media and entertainment coverage. Individually, any one of these could have made 2015 a stellar year. Cumulatively, they exceeded our greatest expectations.HappyHolidays_PJI

The common denominator to all this change has been you.

If you are reading this blog, you are likely a champion of pretrial justice reform and a friend of PJI. We know that our readers include judges, police, county commissioners, and practitioners from all parts of the justice system, and every corner of our nation—and beyond. They include advocates, philanthropists, journalists, and members of the general public. (more…)

“We have seen this before, where a guy attacks his ex, gets arrested, then bails out and then comes back for more and, unfortunately, sometimes kills the woman.”  —Scott Taylor, Cleveland 19 News

This is how coverage of the murder of Zeljka Sekulic began—with the recognition that it wasn’t the first time someone accused of a violent attack bought his or her way out of jail with cash bail and, within days, a victim is dead. The pattern is presented almost as a fact of life, like a deadly disease for which we haven’t yet found a cure. But there is a cure for the cash bail system that left Ms. Sekulic dead: preventive detention of dangerous defendants based on risk.

Two weeks prior to Zeljka’s murder, her estranged husband, Dragan Sekulic, had been arrested for ramming her car with his and leaving her injured, but alive, upside down in a ditch. Stark County Judge John Poulos recognized the threat Mr. Sekulic posed and doubled the presumptive bail amount of his felonious assault charge from $50,000 to $100,000. But it wasn’t enough. Mr. Sekulic paid a for-profit bail bondsman $10,000 and was out on bail when he went to Zeljka’s workplace and shot her to death, according to police. (more…)