Elevate the Pretrial Process

February 17, 2020 by Meredith Trimble

Elevate the Pretrial Process

Pretrial’s High Costs

The many decisions made during the period from an arrest to a trial have significant effects not just on defendants’ lives, but also on community costs.

According to a recent study, more than 75% of defendants held in jails haven’t been convicted of a crime or sentenced. Many sit in local jails awaiting pretrial because they can’t afford the bail amount set to secure their release. Housing these defendants costs American tax payers, on average, $14 billion annually. The large inmate population awaiting pretrial can lead to overcrowding, which means facilities need more staff, more space, and more funding.

For the defendants, so-called “collateral consequences” resulting from their separation from family and community are also high. Individuals in jail during pretrial often lose their jobs, creating costs for them and their employers. They can lose healthcare benefits and housing or lose custody of children. These social and economic costs persist beyond the defendant’s court involvement, and in the case of children, can have a multi-generational effect.

Better Decisions, Better Outcomes

To evolve the pretrial process in a way that benefits courts, justice partners, defendants, and communities, municipalities can bring data housed in multiple systems together to help judges make more informed decisions.

Evidence-based pretrial risk assessment tools first accomplished this by predicting the risk of releasing a defendant prior to the trial using numerical scores. Using these tools instead of relying on the bail system and the defendant’s ability to pay resulted in higher release rates of low-risk defendants, higher detention rates of high-risk defendants, and lower failure-to-appear (FTA) rates.

Pretrial assessment tools that are automated and integrated with existing systems containing relevant information take this one step further. Automation pulls data from all of the many sources and creates time-saving efficiencies for the court while also reducing the potential for human error during data entry.

A full pretrial risk assessment system automates the process of evaluating the defendant’s charging document and criminal history to create a risk assessment score. Data for pretrial assessment comes from multiple sources including charging documents; local, state, and federal criminal history databases; and directly from the defendant. Examples of data points include prior FTAs, prior convictions, present felony charges, other pending cases, and history of drug misuse. By linking together multiple systems across court, supervision, public safety, and correction systems, judges can gain access to a broader and deeper view of criminal history on the front end. This serves to remove inequities and saves defendants and communities undue costs and collateral consequences.

Pretrial Improvements in New Jersey

New Jersey’s Criminal Justice Reform has moved the state away from relying heavily on monetary bail. Two years into reform using a risk assessment system, court appearance rates for defendants released pretrial remain high while the rate of alleged new criminal activity for those defendants remains low.

Of the 135,009 defendants charged with a summons or a warrant in 2018, 93.5% received pretrial release. This release trend reduced the pretrial jail population from 8,899 in 2015 to 4,995 at the end of 2018, a 43.9% decrease in that three-year span.

It’s important to note that on the other end of the spectrum, higher-risk individuals who pose a danger to the community or a substantial risk of flight are no longer able to secure their release simply because they have access to funds.

Reduced FTA Rates in Fulton County, Georgia

In Fulton County, Georgia, the pretrial process involved gathering and collecting information for all arrestees charged with criminal offenses and booked into Fulton County jail. The county automated much of the data collection process to automatically populate forms, which streamlines the process and results in better decisions.

The data is also shared with other agencies, improving their processes. For example, the county’s pretrial process facilitates referrals to the public defender’s office, as well as produces summary documents to facilitate a judge’s final release decision.

After leveraging technology as part of its pretrial release process, the county court determined that 14,000 of the 24,000 inmates booked in 2016 were eligible for an interview as part of the court’s pretrial process. Of those inmates, 3,500 were recommended for pretrial release, while more than 2,000 release recommendations were granted.

At the same time, the Fulton Pretrial Program has maintained low FTA rates of approximately 3%, in comparison to greater than 10% for defendants on other types of release.

Measuring Success

Another major opportunity that comes with using multiple data sources is that jurisdictions can track and measure outcomes of pretrial release programs across court, jail, supervision, and other systems. Collecting and sharing data at the end of the process on those released pretrial (relative to FTAs, recidivism, drug use, employment history, etc.) allow jurisdictions to measure the impact of their pretrial programs.

Once data is collected and consolidated about as many risk factors as possible, statistical analyses can reveal the combination of factors that are the most accurate predictor of a defendant’s pretrial risk.

Valuable Impact

An automated pretrial process that connects multiple stakeholders and information sources keeps communities safer by incarcerating people that pose a real risk or harm. People who don’t pose a threat can be released without risk of losing their jobs, homes, or families due to being held awaiting their hearing.

Such a process will lead to lower numbers of people in jail or prison, less disruption to the lives of defendants, and a lower burden on taxpayers, with the money that usually is spent on housing inmates awaiting hearings shifting into other, more impactful programs that benefit the community.

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