By Matt Alsdorf
Spokane County voters have spoken. Over 60% rejected a ballot initiative that would have funded new jails, leaving county officials to ask, what can we do now? (“Spokane County voters shot down a sales tax that would have paid for a new jail. What happens now?” Nov. 9)
A lot can be done – and it will not cost $540 million in taxpayer dollars.
It is time to focus on commonsense actions that support community well-being and safety. The pretrial system is the best place to start. The growth in the pretrial population – people detained before trial and presumed innocent – is the single biggest factor driving the perceived need for new jails.
Across the nation, communities and states are transforming pretrial systems in response to status quo practices that simply do not work. They have recognized what the data shows: The vast majority of people released pretrial are successful, attending their court hearings and remaining law-abiding. By reserving costly jail beds only for those who need to be detained before trial – those who may flee or pose a threat to community safety – they have reduced their jail populations with no negative impact on community well-being or safety.
This is accomplished by using data to understand how their systems operate, consulting research to identify practices that work, and establishing accountability by tracking and reporting outcomes.
The price tag for these pretrial improvements is a fraction of the cost of a new jail – and many jurisdictions find that these changes actually save money in the long run.
Identify the problem first
The first step is to understand who is in your jails. After all, how can you fix a problem without fully understanding it? In most jurisdictions, people’s impressions of the local jail population can be quite different from what the data show. Nationally, 50 -80% of the population in local jails comprises people in the pretrial phase.
It is also important to understand why people are booked into jail, including for what charges. In Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, officials considering a new jail decided to analyze their jail population first. They found a substantial number of people were held on low-level, nonviolent charges, like trespassing or driving with a revoked license – often because they could not afford to pay a financial release condition. With a clear grasp of who was in jail, officials decided against building another facility in favor of improved pretrial practices.
It is common to find jails filled with people who cannot afford to pay a financial release condition. When New Jersey examined its jail populations, it found that 40% were in jail because they could not afford to pay a financial condition of release, with 12% held on $2,500 or less. In other words, 12% could not come up with $250, the 10% typically required on a secured financial bond. Equally disturbing, New Jersey found that others who posed greater risks to community safety were released because they had access to money.
Taking the next step
Understanding the jail population will allow system officials and community members to make data-informed changes. Although there are many opportunities for improvement, a starting point is to offer supportive pretrial services and review how pretrial decisions are made.
Most people entering the system are charged with nonviolent offenses, and decades of research indicate that the vast majority – about 80% – will return to court and remain law-abiding when living in the community. Supportive pretrial services can help others by identifying challenges that may stand in the way of returning to court, like transportation and childcare. And voluntary referrals to community-based groups can help address underlying social issues, like housing, mental health, and addiction, to steady people’s lives and prevent future system involvement.
By contrast, secured financial conditions (“money bond”) do not improve appearance or arrest-free behavior and should be a last resort if they are considered at all. Too often, pretrial release and detention are determined more by someone’s access to money than by judicial decisions about community safety. Reducing the use of financial conditions of release – or eliminating them altogether, as Illinois just did – can safely reduce jail populations and help address racial and economic disparities in the system.
Improvements to many other pretrial practices can be identified through data analysis and can contribute to achieving these goals. Moreover, such efforts reinforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s unequivocal holding that “In our society, liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception.”
We hope Spokane’s residents and their leaders agree that investing in data and pretrial improvement is worth the effort to advance pretrial justice and improve the safety and well-being of local communities.
Matt Alsdorf, of Los Angeles, is an associate director at the Center for Effective Public Policy, where he co-directs the national initiative Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research (advancingpretrial.org). He is an expert on pretrial advancement and law, assists national, state and local pretrial improvement efforts, and speaks at conferences and national convenings on pretrial justice.