Tripled revenue and doubled staff of the Pretrial Justice Institute, expanding the influence and capabilities of the nation’s only pretrial justice training, communication, and advocacy organization.
“We can mess with people’s lives and nothing happens. I just thought that was wrong.”
“I want to be in the business of catching bad guys and keeping people safe.”
That’s what Cherise Fanno Burdeen said to herself as a child, watching Heather Locklear play a female police officer on television. Now Cherise does just that – though not while wearing an officer’s uniform. Her childhood passion led to a decades-long career in public safety, culminating in her current role as the CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute. Burdeen and her team work to make our nation’s bail system “more safe, more fair, and more effective.”
The pretrial justice system in the U.S. is in dire need of reform. According to Department of Justice statistics, more than 60 percent of the jail population has not been convicted of a crime and is behind bars awaiting trial. What’s worse - studies show that nine in ten people who remain in a jail do so simply because they are unable to post bond before their trial. Across the country, most jurisdictions rely on monetary bail systems that allow people with access to cash to secure their release, regardless of the public safety threat they may pose. For those without the means to pay bail, a lengthy stay in jail can be devastating, and in some cases, deadly. As a result, many people plead guilty – even if they’re innocent – in order to escape pretrial detention.
Pretrial incarceration is also incredibly costly. Defendants who spend mere days in jail can suffer long-term setbacks like losing their job or interrupting their education, pushing them further into our justice system and the cycle of incarceration. Studies have shown that detaining people who cannot post bail costs taxpayers around $38 million a day.
It’s a broken system, and Cherise Fanno Burdeen wants to fix it.
“Pretrial detention is really the gateway to mass incarceration,” she said. “Keeping the wrong people in jail pretrial produces outcomes that aren’t good for any of us.”
Burdeen studied public administration at Miami University before earning her master’s in Criminal Justice from Indiana University. Her more than 20 years of experience includes working with organizations like the National Institute for Justice, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the Transportation Security Administration. Since joining PJI in 2006 as Chief Operating Officer, Burdeen has led the debate around pretrial reform on a national scale. Under her tenure, PJI has hosted a National Symposium on Pretrial Justice with then-Attorney General Eric Holder; negotiated multiple policy resolutions with major criminal justice and government membership associations; tripled PJI’s revenue and doubled its staff; and penned multiple reports and editorials on the need for bail reform.
Cherise was described by her former colleague David Levin as “an innovator, a leader, and a person with a vision for the advancement of justice for pretrial defendants.”
And her work certainly speaks for itself. Under Cherise’s leadership, the Pretrial Justice Institute has been an innovative force in advocating for evidence-based pretrial reforms, bringing leaders together at all levels of government in forging a true bipartisan consensus. In 2016 alone, PJI launched two major initiatives: University of Pretrial, an online learning community for practitioners in the pretrial world that has garnered more than 500 members, and 3DaysCount, a national campaign to implement “commonsense solutions to pretrial justice challenges” in 20 states by the year 2020. These new efforts are an addition to the many other initiatives PJI continues to support, including Smart Pretrial, the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, to name a few.
This year, the Pretrial Justice Institute celebrated its 40th anniversary, and Burdeen’s team hit the ground running this March by hosting Pi-Con, the Worldwide Pretrial Innovators Convention. The innovative convention brought diverse leaders of the pretrial justice reform movement to Washington, D.C., to tackle the challenge of bail reform and rethink pretrial justice.
Looking forward, Burdeen and PJI plan to push for ongoing legislative reform in the states, support litigation to better protect people who are incarcerated pretrial, and improve coordination within the nation’s now-burgeoning pretrial reform movement.
Burdeen’s work advocating for evidence-based pretrial polices is fulfilling her childhood ambitions of promoting both justice and community safety. Forty-five states have now moved to improve their pretrial practices, and two have amended their constitutions to begin doing away with money bail systems. States are shifting toward using validated risk assessments, meant to enable judges to make informed decisions about whether a person should be released before trial, based on factors like criminal history, ties to the community, and likelihood to reappear in court. But as pretrial justice reform advocates celebrate victories, Burdeen strives to keep the road ahead in mind. As she wrote on PJI’s blog in June:
“Time and justice are on our side. But there is still so much to do. Because the special interests will stop at nothing to protect the status quo, those of us on the side of justice must persevere, together, as never before.”