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Q&A: Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research

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

Judge Nathaniel Poovey talks to us about his county's decision to participate in an Arnold Ventures-funded initiative aimed at improving pretrial detention policies.

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This is the first in a series of Q&As with judges from counties selected as Research-Action Sites for the Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research initiative. Read about Montgomery County in Alabama here.

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 PolicyRTI 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. The first is Judge Nathaniel Poovey of Catawba County, North Carolina.

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Arnold Ventures

Why did you want to become a Research-Action Site?

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Judge Nathaniel Poovey

We recognize that with more information and background about a particular defendant, we can make better decisions and ultimately achieve better results. When we heard about this opportunity, we felt it would be a good fit — we get experts in research and data analysis, and in turn, we allow our experiences to be studied and potentially replicated throughout the country. We also have a financial incentive. We’re in the middle of a $33 million jail expansion and the closure of a regional jail facility, so there’s a fiscal imperative to manage our jail capacity. 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.

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Arnold Ventures

What do you hope to achieve?

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Judge Nathaniel Poovey

Basically, we want to achieve a better balance between public safety and releasing people pretrial who don’t need to be in jail. We’re also trying to shift resources away from jailing people and toward more services to keep people from being arrested in the first place and thereby create a safer community.

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Arnold Ventures

Why is collaboration across system stakeholders and with community partners such a key part of this work?

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Judge Nathaniel Poovey

In our county we have a Court Improvement Board that has been in place for over a decade and is composed of various stakeholders in the justice system. Our monthly meetings serve as a venue where people can voice their concerns and find solutions to common problems. If we collaborate together, we can solve basic things that improve our justice system locally. There’s always room for improvement. The DA operates in their silo, the defense bar operates in their silo, the judiciary operates in their silo. To make a lasting difference, you need everybody’s buy-in, including, and maybe most importantly, community partners because obviously, that is where most crimes are committed.

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Arnold Ventures

How does this initiative support your public safety goals?

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Judge Nathaniel Poovey

We have a strong interest in protecting the public safety of our community. We also understand the ancillary effects of what happens to somebody when they’re incarcerated. When judicial pretrial release decisions are supported by research and data which has been proven effective, then we will end up with better results — we can keep those defendants with high risk of failing to appear or re-offending in custody, while allowing those with low risk to remain out of custody while awaiting trial.

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Arnold Ventures

Why are research-based approaches to improve pretrial outcomes so important?

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Judge Nathaniel Poovey

Research allows you to place a given case in the context of all the others that have come before. If you’ve studied how defendants have fared in the system over time, you can better predict which ones are likely to miss their court appearance or commit another offense while awaiting trial. A research-based approach gives a certain amount of confidence that each decision is as informed as possible.