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Most people think you have to commit a crime to go to jail. But on any given day in America around half a million people are in local jails awaiting trial for offenses of which they are presumed innocent, simply because they can’t afford bail. These pretrial detainees, disproportionately people of color, can spend weeks or even months in jail waiting for their day in court, costing taxpayers an estimated $14 billion annually. Many lose their jobs. Even if they’re innocent, some poor defendants make plea deals because it’s the only way for a speedy release. Meanwhile, wealthy and middle-class defendants with the resources to bail themselves out walk free.

To design a more fair, just, and effective system, the Center for Effective Public Policy, RTI International, and Stanford University recently launched an initiative called Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research. Through a competitive process, five counties across the nation were selected as Research-Action Sites. Over the next five years, these counties will receive training and participate in research aimed at improving their pretrial justice policies. The approach to reform will be comprehensive: Jurisdictions will consider implementing a variety of reforms to reduce wealth- and race-based discrimination and ensuring pretrial incarceration is used only when absolutely necessary to protect public safety.

We spoke with judges across the country who are participating in the program in a series of Q&As. Read them all below.


Risk Assessment Balances Individual Liberty with Public Safety

There’s research saying that you really shouldn’t mix low-risk folks with high-risk folks. Sometimes we over-supervise low-risk people who don’t need to be incarcerated. Then there are some folks who really need to be incarcerated,” says Judge Johnny Hardwick of Montgomery County, Alabama.

Collaboration is the Key to Pretrial Reform

We desperately need a public safety assessment tool, and the implementation of the Arnold Ventures tool fits perfectly with that in terms of setting conditions of release,” says Judge Christine Schaller of Thurston County, Washington.


National Partnership Helps Ensure Equal Protection, Equal Access’ in Pierce County

A risk assessment tool ” it’s only a part of the overall decision-making process. It’s not a computer where if you get a certain score, you get out. There are other factors that go into the decision,” says Judge Stan Rumbaugh of Pierce County, Washington.

Risk Assessment Aims to Address Mental Health Issues

Our county jail is currently the second largest mental health facility in Georgia. That’s not what it’s designed to do, that’s not what jailors are trained to do, but we have a large segment of our criminal justice population that suffers from mental health issues. The more we can develop diversionary responses with mental health concerns, the better,” says Judge Robert McBurney.


In Catawba County, Pretrial Reform is Driven by Public Safety, Financial Responsibility

We want folks in jail who need to be in jail, and we want folks out of jail who don’t need to be in jail,” says Catawba County Judge Nathaniel Poovey.