Mar 07, 2019

National Criminal Justice Month: The importance of pre-trial policy reform

Post by Freedom Partners

This month marks 10 years since Congress officially designated March as National Criminal Justice Month. But the topic is just as important — if not more important — than it was in 2009.

The First Step Act, signed into law last December, is fueling a national conversation about reforming the criminal justice system further. Because while the First Step Act was a landmark piece of bipartisan legislation, it is, as the name suggests, a first step of many.

One possible next step state and local decision-makers should take is addressing pre-trial policies, specifically when it comes to pre-trial release and bail.

On any given night, some 450,000 Americans are sitting in jail cells awaiting trial. While some of these people pose a threat to public safety, many do not. In some jurisdictions, bail practices can open doors to those with greater access to cash, while trapping the poor behind bars.

Freedom Partners Chairman Mark Holden recently penned an op-ed for Morning Consult on this topic:

For the poor, a bail fee that can exceed $20,000 effectively turns jail into a “debtor’s prison.” At times, high bail might be necessary to keep a violent offender off the streets or reduce the risk of flight. But often there is no risk assessment done to determine if a defendant poses a risk to public safety.

One of the best ways to reform pre-trial policy is through the use of risk-assessment tools.

Risk-assessment tools can be computer-based algorithms or a simple, paper form used by judges to assess a person’s risk. Tools are still being studied, but there’s already an abundance of research showing that evidence-based approaches outperform human judgement.

New Jersey, New Mexico and Washington, D.C., are already taking steps to get there. They have expanded the use of risk-assessments, and adopted strong presumptions of pre-trial release and strict timeliness and procedural protections.

In 2016, voters in New Jersey and New Mexico approved bail and pretrial detention reforms. Now, courts use risk-assessment and consider evidence from both sides at hearings in an effort to hold only those who present a risk to the public.

Hopefully, other states follow suit. Momentum from bipartisan criminal reform can fuel pre-trial reforms to better protect the rights of the accused while safeguarding the public.