The Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI) has chosen six jurisdictions, including two in California, to receive assistance in their efforts to improve their pretrial practices. PJI is non-profit advocacy group fighting for pretrial reform in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.
Specifically, pretrial includes everything from a person’s arrest to the conclusion of charges—whether through dismissal, plea deal, or trial. The issue of pretrial justice reform is of particular importance because most of the nation’s jail inmates have not been convicted. They are locked up while they await trial. And most pretrial detainees are incarcerated because they can’t afford bail. This is especially true in California, which has some of the highest bail schedules in the nation.
The jurisdictions included in the project, funded by the US Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), are Santa Clara County and San Francisco in CA, as well as Alachua County, FL, Lucas County, OH, Marion County, IN, and Mecklenburg County, NC.
“Current pretrial practices in most of the United States result in unnecessary pretrial detention, increase crime, and exacerbate racial and economic disparities in our criminal justice system,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, PJI’s CEO. “These six competitively chosen sites have shown the will and capacity to tackle long-standing challenges that are faced by nearly every city, county, and state in the nation.”
San Francisco, Santa Clara, and the other four sites were chosen, in part, because they are already working toward reform, and have implemented, or are in the process of developing, risk-based assessment tools for pretrial release.
Risk assessment efforts have been touted as a means of reducing the country’s astronomic prison population and corrections spending by estimating an offender’s risk of reoffending. Judges using risk assessment look at factors such as prior offenses, marital status, age, sex, education, and employment.
San Francisco will focus on procedural justice during defendants’ first court appearances, during which, judges inform the accused of their rights, appoint public defenders for indigent defendants, and set the conditions for pretrial release.
Through its work with PJI, San Francisco justice leaders will examine how they can “bring the tenets of procedural justice into the first appearance hearing,” said Fanno Burdeen. “How can we be more thoughtful and mindful about the way in which people are treated—not because we’re coddling people,” but because “people in a presumed innocent status…should be afforded all of the respect of any other person off the street.”
Over in Santa Clara County, stakeholders will be working toward “Enhancing and Ensuring Racial and Ethnic Equality” at the pretrial level.
Fanno Burdeen says she’s looking forward to seeing “what Santa Clara can do on this issue, because they have all the stakeholders at the table, they’re not afraid of recognizing this as an issue, and they have a lot of opportunities as a county with money to innovate.“ Similarly, SF District Attorney George Gascón and Public Defender Jeff Adachi have both been leading reform efforts in San Francisco.
PJI will be partnering with San Francisco’s Pretrial Diversion Project and Santa Clara’s Office of Pretrial Services—the offices that applied for assistance—as well as other stakeholders in each jurisdiction, like the DA’s office, the public defender’s office, and local law enforcement.
The participants will get training through PJI’s online learning community, the University of Pretrial, as well as coaching from PJI and their partner organizations.
For example, Santa Clara will receive assistance from the W. Haywood Burns Institute to use data gathering and analysis to eliminate racial and ethnic disparity.
For San Francisco, the work will travel into less familiar territory. Along with SF and partner organizations, PJI will determine what a procedural justice assessment of first appearance hearings looks like,” Fanno Burdeen said.
The project, which started this week, will continue until September 30, 2018.
PJI’s latest DOJ-funded effort is part of a national, bipartisan push for pretrial reform. And it’s gaining momentum.
In July, US Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a bail reform bill to authorize a $10 million, three-year grant period that would incentivize either eliminating or reforming the use of cash bail at the state level.
“In our country, whether you stay in jail or not is wholly determined by whether you’re wealthy or not – and that’s wrong,” said Senator Harris. “We must come together to reform a bail system that is discriminatory, wasteful, and fails to keep our communities safe.”
States could earn grant money by replacing monetary bail with evidence-based risk assessment tools, providing for a presumption of release for pretrial defendants (unless individuals pose public safety or flight risks), appointing legal counsel at the earliest stage of pretrial detention possible, implementing rigorous data gathering to measure pretrial system reform progress, and more.
“The Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act of 2017” would also set aside $5 million for the US Bureau of Justice Statistics to launch a National Pretrial Reporting Program, to gather data on “the processing of defendants” in state and local court systems.
“Americans should be able to expect fair and equal treatment under the law regardless of how much money is in their pockets or how many connections they have,” said Senator Paul. “By giving states greater freedom to undertake reforms specific to their needs, our legislation will help strengthen protections for minority and low-income defendants, reduce waste, and move our bail system toward more effective methods, such as individualized, risk-based assessments.”
CA Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who has expressed his support for bail reform efforts at the state and national level, recently shared some bail statistics. Nine out of 10 inmates awaiting trial are behind bars because they can’t afford bail, Newsom said in one of a series of infographics posted to Facebook. Newsom’s numbers come from a December 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics report that examined felony defendants in the 75 largest counties nationwide for 2009. BJS found that approximately “9 in 10 detained defendants had a bail amount set, but were unable to meet the financial conditions required to secure release.”
This year, lawmakers in California and Texas introduced bills to overhaul the bail system. While the Texas bill was shot down before it reached the governor, and the fate of California’s bill looks grim, Connecticut and Illinois legislators also introduced reform bills, both of which earned final approval from lawmakers and the two states’ governors.
California’s bill, SB 10, authored by CA Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), would replace the state’s current bail system with pretrial risk assessment. The bill would also create services to help people who have been freed before trial to get back to court and to comply with the conditions of their pretrial release. While SB 10 made it through the CA Senate, and is awaiting a decision from the Assembly Appropriations Committee, an identical bill by Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), AB 42, was shot down in the Assembly Appropriations Committee in June.