On any given day, about 4,700 people held in Washington jails are eligible to be released based on their likelihood to commit new crimes and show up to court before trial, according to a new report from the state auditor’s office.
Auditors found roughly one-third of the state’s jail inmates are candidates for pretrial services such as electronic monitoring, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and texts and phone calls that remind people of court dates.
The auditors also found the cost of incarceration significantly outweighs the cost of pretrial services, concluding such reforms could save $6 million to $12 million in taxpayer money each year while maintaining public safety.
The audit, published last week, makes no policy recommendations but reaffirms what criminal justice activists have been saying for years: The cash bail system disadvantages the poor and fuels recidivism.
“When defendants cannot afford to pay bail, they remain in jail until the trial. Keeping them in jail is costly to the taxpayers,” the auditors concluded. “Perhaps more importantly, extended jail time before trial can have significant consequences for defendants, as they become more likely to be convicted, more likely to receive a longer sentence, and less likely to gain and maintain future employment.”
The state auditors examined 2016 jail inmate data using the Public Safety Assessment, a risk-assessment tool created by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. About half of the 4,700 inmates deemed eligible for release were considered likely to reoffend without monitoring and services, while the rest were considered low-risk.
The auditors acknowledged limitations of their study. For example, they only accessed criminal records from Washington, meaning potential convictions from other parts of the country weren’t factored into Public Safety Assessment scores. In Spokane County, that probably influenced the risk scores of some inmates with prior convictions in Idaho.
The auditors specifically examined data from Spokane and Yakima counties, which have made concerted efforts to reduce jail overcrowding and eliminate socioeconomic disparities. The auditors found that defendants given pretrial services reoffended at slightly lower rates than those released on bail, but in Spokane County the difference was not statistically significant.
Defendants released through pretrial services in Spokane County, however, were much more likely to show up to court than those released on bail, the auditors found. Failure-to-appear rates for the two groups were 38 percent and 53 percent, respectively.
The audit accompanies another report, published in February by Washington’s Pretrial Reform Task Force, which makes a range of policy recommendations aimed at safeguarding the presumption of innocence enshrined in the Constitution.
The reports found only 28 courts in the state use pretrial services programs. Those include Spokane Municipal Court and Spokane County’s district and superior courts, making the local justice system an outlier in Eastern Washington.
“The use of a pretrial services department can be really helpful in assisting people getting to court or remembering court dates,” said Municipal Court Judge Mary Logan, who co-authored the task force report with state Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu and King County Superior Court Judge Sean O’Donnell.
Logan noted bail is “not supposed to be a punitive measure,” and with few exceptions, court rules require defendants be released before trial. The task force concluded the government – not defendants – should bear the cost of pretrial services.
“Accused persons cannot and should not be required to incur additional costs or debts as a result of their participation in pretrial services,” they wrote.
Spokane County’s criminal justice administrator, Maggie Yates, said the task force report validates the county’s reform efforts funded by the MacArthur Foundation.
“Releasing individuals when it’s appropriate not only makes sense legally, but ethically and financially as well,” Yates said in an email. “It allows individuals to continue to support their families, pursue and maintain employment, and seek out mental health or substance use treatment while navigating court proceedings. The resulting stability only makes our community safer.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Thursday, March 7, 2019. A previous version misidentified the organization that developed the Public Safety Assessment.
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