By Marc Levin and Ed Chun
Recent media stories have speculated on the future of federal efforts to reform the criminal justice system. Much of the discussion surrounds the possibility of rekindling bipartisan sentencing and corrections reform legislation that was on the cusp of being enacted in the previous Congress.
While comprehensive reforms to lower federal mandatory minimum sentences remain aspirational, there are other policies on which the right and left agree that could have as much, if not more, impact in reducing the nation’s incarcerated population while maintaining public safety.
Every day, approximately 450,000 people who have not been convicted of a crime are currently behind bars while they await adjudication of their case. This is more than double the number of people in federal prison and two and half times the total jail population in 1980.
According to a recent analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, “99 percent of the growth in jails over the last 15 years has been a result of increases in the pre-trial population.” This increase was not due to a more criminalized or violent society but rather stemmed from discretionary criminal justice policies that increasingly conditioned release from jail on whether they could pay for bail.
Money bail systems, however, are neither the most effective nor fairest way to achieve the goals of the justice system prior to trial. For those whom a court determines to be a danger to society, allowing them to pay for their release seems like an illogical remedy where a rich dangerous person is freed but a poor dangerous person remains in jail. And, to ensure a person returns for court appearances, more effective methods have developed in recent years that combine an objective assessment of a person’s risks with appropriate human supervision and electronic monitoring.
The harms and inequities associated with money bail systems — especially when it comes to nonviolent, low-risk poor defendants — are well documented. According to an analysis by the Arnold Foundation, keeping low-risk defendants in jail for even two or three days increases the likelihood that they will commit a new crime by 40 percent. The impact also is felt disproportionately by those who cannot pay for even relatively modest bail and thus remain locked up.
The movement to reform bail systems has taken root in a small but growing number of both conservative and progressive states. Connecticut last month enacted a statute that bars the imposition of financial conditions for pretrial release for most misdemeanors. Earlier this year, New Jersey passed legislation that eliminated bail for minor crimes and instituted the use of a risk assessment tool to help courts determine pretrial supervision conditions. Kentucky, which instituted the same risk assessment tool in 2013, will now automatically release people determined to be low-risk if they meet certain criteria. And Washington, D.C., releases 90 percent of those arrested with conditions to report to a pretrial agency and comply with drug testing and other requirements.
While state and local policy change is the primary means of achieving bail reform, given that pretrial detention implicates the guarantees of equal protection and due process found in the U.S. Constitution, the federal government can play a collaborative role, even if most of the people in jail awaiting trial are in local facilities. Through its technical assistance efforts, the Department of Justice (DOJ) shares advancements made in a small number of states with a national audience and provides valuable data that reveals the impact of pretrial practices across the nation. From issuing statements of interest on bail in pending federal litigation to providing guidance on the proper use of risk assessment instruments, the DOJ must remain committed to pretrial policies that prioritize public safety over a person’s ability to pay.
Congress also has an important voice that can exemplify the bipartisan support for bail reform across the country. The legislative branch’s bully pulpit is especially effective when emphasizing points of agreement across the political spectrum, as demonstrated by Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), and their colleagues who sponsored the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. While this Act is not yet law, this type of bipartisan cooperation led to the Second Chance Act. Through the Second Chance Act, the federal government became a partner in state and local reentry efforts without dictating policies, and such a model would be welcome in the pretrial arena as well.
There is still much work to be done to reform the criminal justice system. Fortunately, this remains a priority that transcends partisanship, even in the current political climate. It is time for our national leaders to act on the consensus developed among states, local communities, advocates, and think tanks representing different ideological perspectives like ours.
Marc Levin is the Policy Director for Right on Crime and Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Ed Chung is the Vice President for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress.