There are many ways to improve pretrial justice; all require vision, commitment, and leadership. The following profiles demonstrate how PJI partners have made their systems fairer and maximized pretrial release while also ensuring people appear in court and preserving public safety.
The State of New Jersey: Reduce arrests & Replace cash bail
In 2013 the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey commissioned a study that found jails across the state were full of people who were charged with low-level offenses but unable to obtain release before trial because of money bail. With coaching, pretrial fundamentals education, and communications support from PJI, DPA applied a broad coalition strategy to help pass comprehensive bail reform and a constitutional amendment needed to enact the reform.
Although the near elimination of money bail is the most discussed piece of New Jersey’s historic legislation, several related reforms made the transformation possible, including a reduction in arrests. At the close of 2017, one year after the reforms went into effect, 69% of people receiving a complaint from police were released on a complaint-summons (given a later date to appear in court), and 81% of people who were taken to jail on a complaint-warrant were eventually released pretrial. Just two years after the legislation passed in 2015, New Jersey’s jail population had decreased by 35% with no changes to its public safety rate.
Denver, Colorado: Replace cash bail
The City and County of Denver, a fast-growing metropolitan area with advanced pretrial practices, was able to enhance public safety while maintaining its commitment to maximizing release and careful use of public resources.
Gap analysis identifies areas where desired performance and actual performance diverge. A gap analysis performed as part of Denver’s application of PJI’s Smart Pretrial framework revealed that the jurisdiction’s use of a charge-based financial bond schedule was allowing a small group of people charged with felonies to secure their release without a pretrial assessment. Officials responded by eliminating the bond schedule in July 2016. As a result, all people facing felony charges must attend an initial advisement hearing before they can be released from jail.
Yakima County, Washington: Restrict detention
Yakima County, a nonurban area in eastern Washington, had one of the state’s highest pretrial detention rates. Applying PJI’s Smart Pretrial framework helped county officials provide more information to judges making decisions about detention and release, which led to a dramatic increase in release as well as in racial and ethnic equity.
The county began using the Laura and John Arnold Foundation’s Public Safety Assessment (PSA) to assess all newly charged people booked into the county jail. A comparison of cases from before and after the implementation showed an increase in pretrial release, from 53% to 73%, with no impact on public safety or court appearance rates. Moreover, racial disparities in pretrial release rates were reduced significantly; in the case of Latinx/Hispanics, release rates increased by 26 percentage points, from 49% to 75%, a rate on par with cases involving whites. Among Native American, black, and Asian/Pacific Islanders, the release rate increased from 41% to 65%.
Jefferson County, Alabama: Raise Equity
Jefferson County is home to the largest city in Alabama, Birmingham. Its experience in pretrial reform demonstrates how local leaders can avoid costly and drawn-out litigation by initiating and advancing improvements that are compliant with the law and research.
Following a civil rights complaint about racially disparate pretrial release rates, the county turned to PJI to find alternatives to its fixed money bond system, and to implement an objective system of pretrial justice. Guided by the Smart Pretrial framework, county officials voluntarily adopted an objective, evidence-based pretrial assessment tool to aid judicial decision making and developed a framework of least restrictive conditions for safe, fair, and effective pretrial release.
Jefferson County subsequently entered into an historic agreement with the Department of Justice to solidify this work and engage in other pretrial improvements, such as funding and establishing a pretrial services agency.
Washington, D.C.: Replace cash bail & Restrict detention
The Pretrial Services Agency (PSA) for the District of Columbia is a long-recognized national leader in pretrial justice practices. The agency strongly adheres to the principle of least restrictive conditions, offers a wide array of release options, and operates in a jurisdiction that has virtually eliminated money bond. Moreover, these practices support the goals of public safety and court appearance. Ninety-one percent of people released in D.C. remain arrest free while their cases are being adjudicated, and ninety-percent (90 percent) of released defendants make all scheduled court appearances.
A pivotal step in PSA’s evolution toward becoming a model pretrial services agency was legislation passed in 1992 in the wake of a series of violent crimes. The legislation expanded the scope of pretrial detention, but John (Jay) Carver, the director of PSA at the time, was also successful in getting language inserted in the bill that prohibited the court from setting a financial bail that resulted in people remaining in jail.
The bill eliminated the practice of setting high money bond amounts to detain people and effectively returned the process to the detention provisions under law. In the year before the law’s passage, only 2 percent of cases were held under detention provisions; the year after passage, 15 percent of cases were detained. More recent measurements show that ninety percent of cases in the District of Columbia are released without money bond, five percent have financial conditions of release (but do not use commercial bonds), and the rest are held without bail. Carver also noted that while the 1992 act was important, it was part of a longer process of demonstrating how the pretrial release decision-making process could work without money bail.
Allegheny County, Pennsylvania: Replace cash bail
In the past, Allegheny County bail agency staff depended on incomplete, manually-recorded information for its investigations, resulting in inconsistent bail recommendations and pretrial detention for people who could not afford bail. Beginning in 2007, the newly-formed Allegheny County Pretrial Services began a new era for pretrial justice. The new agency began to update its operations,which included establishing a standardized method for assessing a person’s likelihood of success on release with regard to court appearance and public safety, and establishing a menu of bail options beyond monetary bond.
ACPTS staff members have been trained to conduct interviews, ensure complete responses, and verify references, and ACPTS has a new and comprehensive instrument for assessing a person’s probability of success on release regarding community safety and court appearance. This research-based instrument ensures that people are evaluated consistently and fairly and that bail appropriately reflects their likelihood of success on release. Thanks in part to this tool, only 20 percent of people are detained during the pretrial period.
PJI offers flexible frameworks for change that reflect the multi-level structure of the U.S. criminal justice system. Smart Pretrial describes our local, county-level approach; 3DaysCount refers to our state-level reform process. Although the names and scale of impact vary, both use the same strategies.