New York — Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) today announced the release of the first-ever comprehensive interactive Web database of laws governing key issues in pretrial criminal justice in all 50 states. This database, which is searchable by both subject and state, provides users with easy-to-understand summaries of statutes and constitutional provisions governing important pretrial topics including release and detention, diversion, risk assessments, conditions of release, and the use of citations in lieu of arrest.
The interactive online database represents the culmination of a yearlong collaboration between LJAF and the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). The resource is available on NCSL’s website.
“We believe there is a tremendous opportunity to reduce crime and improve the efficiency of taxpayer dollars by focusing on the front end of the system, the period between arrest and sentencing,” LJAF Vice President of Criminal Justice Anne Milgram said. “Jurisdictions that take advantage of this new resource can identify ways to both better protect the public and realize significant cost savings.”Among the topics covered in this interactive resource are:
- Laws mandating or recommending the use of risk assessments in making pretrial release/detention decisions.
- Laws governing which defendants are eligible for pretrial release and which may be detained.
- Laws providing for alternatives to traditional criminal justice proceedings for certain people charged with criminal offenses, a practice known as diversion.
- Laws establishing conditions that may be set for defendants released before trial.
- Laws governing when law enforcement may issue citations (tickets requiring an appearance in court and/or payment of a fine) for low-level criminal violations, rather than arresting an offender.
The database will also include information on bail eligibility, pretrial services, and commercial bail bonding practices – work that was funded by the Public Welfare Foundation.
“With the launch of this database, it will no longer be a challenge for legislators and policy-makers to understand the laws that impact pretrial criminal justice in individual states, or on the national level,” Milgram said. “This resource for the first time provides a comprehensive guide to current laws affecting these critical issues and will allow lawmakers and practitioners to learn from one another, identify potential reforms, and spread best practices.”
LJAF and NCSL previously published three reports on pretrial legislation introduced or enacted over the past year. LJAF also recently announced that, over the coming year, it will partner with NCSL so that NCSL can update and augment its existing database of laws governing the use of DNA in criminal proceedings to include information on statutes pertaining to a wide variety of forensic science issues. That project is expected to be complete in March 2014.
About Laura and John Arnold Foundation
Laura and John Arnold Foundation is private foundation that currently focuses its strategic investments on criminal justice, education, public accountability, and research integrity. LJAF has offices in Houston and New York City.
What if you only showed up for work 4 out of 5 days a week? Would that be acceptable to your employer? What if you only paid 4 out of every 5 bills you received from your local utility? Would they still keep your power on? What if you only completed 79% of your tax return? Would the IRS let you get away with it? The easy answer to all these questions is ABSOLUTELY NOT!
So you are probably asking why I am asking such common sense questions. Well, the truth is what is common sense to most of us is unfortunately not common sense to others. For example, just this past weekend, an article was written in the Courier-Journal touting the incredible success of the pretrial services program in Jefferson County, Kentucky. A state that you may or may not know that does not allow commercial bail. According to a Jefferson County District Court judge, the Pretrial Service Agency in his county gets High-Risk defendants back to court “an amazing 79% of the time….” Really? Amazing? Twenty-one percent of the time, the defendant is pretty much ignoring the authority of the system and doing whatever they want, and that, according to the judge is “amazing” and defines “success?” Interesting and disturbing to say the least.
The article goes on to show some math to support the so called success of the Pretrial Services Agencies. However, if you are a common sense person, it is really hard to define these numbers as “success.” According to the article, 35,186 people obtained pretrial release in Jefferson County. Each of these individuals went through a so called evidenced based risk assessment by the local Pretrial Services Agency. Thirteen percent of low-risk defendants did not show up for court….does that sound like success? Twenty percent of medium risk defendants did not show up for court…does that sound like success? Twenty one percent of high-risk defendants did not show up for court…once again, does that sound like success? To the pretrial folks, sure, it is great. But to the community it is absolutely not. Especially when almost 20% of the high-risk defendants are re-offending…in other words, several thousand defendants who have been released under pretrial services’ imaginary veil of supervision are ignoring the authority of the courts and in the process are running free to commit more crimes and victims. And all this happens at a serious financial and social cost to the county and state. When people fail to appear for court there is a huge financial cost that accompanies that act. In Dallas, Texas that cost was found to be over $1,700 per defendant. Applying that number to Jefferson County, based on a failure to appear rate of over 21% for just high risk defendants, the cost to Jefferson County is easily in the millions of dollars.
What makes this story even more disturbing is that this ineffective and costly system of managing criminal defendants (on both the front and back end of the process) is funded 100% by taxpayer dollars. Yes, those taxpayers in Jefferson County, Kentucky are paying for a government run Pretrial Service Agency to fail 20% of the time. And just for the record, when these 20% of high-risk defendants don’t show up for court, who do you think goes and gets them? Who is held accountable and pays the court when they don’t show up? The answer is no one. Why? Because there is no skin in the game and no accountability by any party involved (pretrial services or the defendant). When a defendant fails to appear, Pretrial Service Agencies have nothing to lose. The court just issues a bench warrant and it becomes the responsibility of already overburdened law enforcement to get him…which usually happens after they have committed an additional crime.
There is definitely not a simple solution to the challenges facing criminal justice systems like Kentucky. However, there is a more effective solution. A solution that is currently in practice in 46 other states; A solution that gets defendants back to court better than any other form of pretrial release; A solution that does not cost the taxpayers a single dollar; A solution that actually generates revenue for the county and state through premium taxes and forfeiture payments; A solution that is based on a real risk assessment and is evidenced based; A solution that lowers recidivism and better protects the community; and finally, a solution that gives crime victims a chance at justice. This solution is the commercial bail bond industry. It is time for states like Kentucky to start considering ways to more responsibly and effectively maintain the accountability of their criminal justice system and protect the public interest of its communities.
One of the most critical aspects of managing any form of state or local government is one’s ability to efficiently and effectively both protect its citizens and care for those in need. For purposes of this article, we will identify these two separate responsibilities as “criminal justice” (protection) and “social justice” (caring). When looked at individually, each of these responsibilities lack ambiguity. However, when woven together, these two elements can become quite disruptive by leading to incredible inefficiencies and ideological impasses that have the potential to break down the system completely. I believe that this troublesome combining of social justice and criminal justice has significantly contributed to the ongoing “jail overcrowding” debate. It is this specific topic of jail overcrowding and pretrial release that I would like to further discuss in this op-ed and show how the solution could be simpler than we think.
Going back centuries to feudal England, the bail bond industry was brought to this country by our founding fathers and has long been a vital component of the criminal justice system in the United States. The concept of people promising property or other monetary assets to financially secure the release of an individual from jail while awaiting trial did not only work centuries ago, but also continues to work just as effectively today. With over 2 million bail bonds posted in the system each and every year, the commercial bail industry has prided itself on a proven track record of not only getting defendants to court but also indirectly lowering recidivism rates of those individuals who are out awaiting trial. In other words, the commercial bail industry not only guarantees that our criminal justice system gets a chance to work as efficiently and effectively as possible…. in that process, they also ensure that the concept of “accountability” is maintained and that the public is protected.
Back in the 1960’s our elected officials were pushed to focus more time and resources on the other side of the system…the social justice side. Efforts were made to reform the criminal justice system to include more social justice (caring) components. In order to achieve this goal, Pretrial Services Agencies were created with the use of taxpayer dollars to facilitate and administer these “social justice” types of services/programs. In the context of the criminal justice system, these services were promoted as being necessary to help the indigent (those that have no means or social ties) get out of jail pretrial, help those with drug and alcohol dependency issues get out of jail and into special programs, as well as those who required professional mental health counseling. Initially, these programs did a great job of caring for those that had these special needs. In fact, because so many within the system needed the services of these social justice programs, more and more were released through these Pretrial Services Agencies.
Like any governmental function, the programs, perhaps predictably, grew. This growth saw those released going far beyond the “special needs” prospect and the agencies today lobby the courts to allow even persons with no special needs to be so released. This approach however relegates to relative unimportance that most necessary element: getting persons to court. Research study after research study has shown that when someone is released with a financially secured commercial bail bond they will show up for court way more often (28% more often) than someone released through a Pretrial Services Agency. In other words, the system was gradually losing its hold on accountability. As you can imagine, in the world of pretrial release, appearance rate is everything, so much so that it becomes the ultimate variable that can determine the success or failure of the system overall. For example, if no one shows up for court, then no one is being held accountable and justice can’t be served.
Today, many pretrial service agencies are still in existence (about 300 counties out of 3000 counties in the US have them). The difference however, is that today, these pretrial service programs have a different agenda…a different social purpose. Their goal is to not only help those that need help or don’t have help, but rather to become the “monitor” for everyone released pending trial. In other words, to eliminate the workable alternative: secured release. They appear to be on a mission to expand their social justice programs deeper into the criminal justice system and blur the lines between these two critical components of the justice equation. The problem with this approach and this overdose of social justice into the process is that it unbalances the two sides of the equation and unfortunately removes the most vital component of our criminal justice system…accountability. If people have no sense of accountability then the system ultimately fails. Criminal justice is all about accountability and making sure that those charged with a crime have their day in court and if found guilty are held accountable for their actions. Remove that accountability and there will be no justice in the system, especially for those it was designed to serve. Coincidentally, their growth policy violates the age old proposition: Be fair to the accused by not making the release conditions harsher than they need to be, but make them sufficiently strong enough to ensure appearance as directed.
The commercial bail industry tirelessly commits itself to ensuring that the criminal justice system continues to work as effectively as possible. By financially guaranteeing that a defendant will show up for court, the commercial bail industry guarantees the personal accountability of the accused. At the same time, the industry is not blind to the need for social justice programs. In fact, it has been extremely vocal in support of the role of Pretrial Services Agencies on behalf of the indigent and those needing help…the people the programs were initially designed for.
Applying this principle (the difference between social and criminal justice) to the challenge of jail overcrowding can be extremely revealing. If our goal is to release individuals both pretrial and post-conviction into the public and to supervise their behavior, should we turn to a method of release that was designed to help those that couldn’t help themselves (social justice), or should we turn to a solution that was designed to ensure accountability and guarantee performance (criminal justice)? Looking at it through this lens, it is easy to see that jail overcrowding isn’t a social justice issue, but rather a criminal justice issue that requires a criminal justice solution.
Even beyond jail overcrowding and looking at a broader view of the system, the same question must be addressed: Where is the balance between the need for social justice and the need for criminal justice, and who is best positioned to service the needs of each of those requirements? We believe the solutions lies with both. Let the commercial bail industry focus on those defendants who need to be held accountable and brought through the system as effectively and efficiently as possible, while Pretrial Services Agencies focus on helping the truly indigent and those who can’t help themselves. This way all stakeholders win.