New pretrial process helps courts, defendants and communities
Across the country, justice partners and the public are realizing the need for pretrial reform. 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.
A pretrial release decision based solely on a defendant’s ability to pay bail money penalizes the poor and fails to protect the public. In fact, the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) adopted a policy position that advocates the presumptive use of non-financial release conditions for the pretrial period. COSCA recommends that court leaders adopt automated, evidence-based pretrial risk assessment tools that produce numerical scores. These are simply better predictors of pretrial success or failure than the ability to pay bail.
Unjust and Expensive
In the jurisdiction of Fulton County, Georgia, officials are proving COSCA’s position correct. Pretrial release programs that rely on a bond system can be both unjust and expensive. In evolving to a digital system, Fulton County sought a more fair and accurate way to predict the likelihood of a defendant offending or failing to appear for court while on pretrial release. The county also needed to automate and streamline an expensive, cumbersome process.
In the county’s service area that includes Atlanta, pretrial involves more than 20,000 defendants each year. Gathering relevant information for non-bail pretrial release analysis involves collecting data for all arrestees from sources that include charging documents; local, state and federal criminal history databases; and the defendant. From these sources, staff analyzes prior failure to appear (FTA) instances, prior convictions, present felony charges, other pending cases and history of drug misuse, for example. Manually gathering all that disparate information is simply too heavy a lift with strained resources and a large population.
A New Approach
Fulton County’s Pretrial Services program really began back in 2010, when the county merged its two pretrial agencies — the State Court Pretrial Services (misdemeanors) and the Superior Court Pretrial Services (felonies) — into one. This created a cohesion that was enhanced with an automated data collection process. The program now provides Superior and State Court judicial officers with verified information that facilitates pretrial release determinations at the earliest opportunity. It also monitors defendants released to the program for compliance.
The county chose an integrated software system that gathers and collects information for defendants while also simplifying the interview process by pre-populating forms. The system measures compliance success rates against the general populations and also makes the data easily accessible to other agencies, connecting justice partners in a valuable way. For example, it facilitates referrals to the public defender’s office, as well as produces summary documents to aid a judge’s final release decision.
Other functionalities of the tool include telephone check-ins to facilitate parole appointments without individuals taking time off work to appear in person. Automated hearing reminders via text also help to decrease FTA rates.
Internally, the county has benefited greatly in time, personnel and cost savings from the new, streamlined approach. Officials have also seen significant value in automating workflow. Because cases automatically move into the appropriate electronic queues, the court has become a nearly paperless operation.
More important, the program has been successful in reducing incarcerations, jail time and their associated dollar and human costs. This decreases the injustice of keeping individuals in jail simply because they can’t make bail. A real highlight is that the program helped achieve a higher rate of trial appearances than with individuals released on bonds.
The numbers really do speak for themselves. Using pretrial services, Fulton County produces more than 1,200 interviews per month. The county tracks 1,100 felony and 500 misdemeanor clients, totaling 1,600, on pretrial release at any given time. In 2016, they booked more than 24,000 inmates and 14,000 were eligible for an interview. Of those, 3,500 were recommended for pretrial release and more than 2,000 release recommendations were granted.
Overall, 25 percent of all eligible inmates are recommended for release and 14 percent are released to pretrial services. At a cost of $77 per inmate per day, the county is saving approximately $7.4 million per year with the pretrial program. Beyond dollars, the program has helped maintain low FTA rates of approximately 3 percent, in comparison to more than 10 percent for defendants on other types of release.
Overcoming Pretrial’s High Costs in Other Jurisdictions
Fulton County is an instructive example for other jurisdictions. Pretrial comes at a high cost to society at large and tackling it is something that is within reach for all of us. According to a recent study, more than 75 percent of defendants held in jails in America 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 taxpayers, 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.
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.
With lower numbers of people in jail comes a lower burden on taxpayers. Money that usually is spent on housing inmates awaiting hearings shifts into other, more impactful programs that benefit the community. With continued hard work and the use of technology, Fulton County is on track to eliminate or reduce the impact of systems and processes that are unjust.
Larry Stanton is the director of sales of Tyler Supervision at Tyler Technologies.