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
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%.
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.