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Q&A: Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research

Collaboration is Key to Pretrial Reform in Thurston County

Judge Christine Schaller says Arnold Ventures-funded initiative aligns with her county's recent redesign of their pretrial services systems.

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This is the third 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 North Carolina's Catawba County here and Alabama's Montgomery County 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. Next up is Judge Christine Schaller of Thurston County, Washington State.

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Arnold Ventures

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

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Judge Christine Schaller

We are really excited to be one of the five sites that were selected. Our team is very excited about this project, even though we know it’s going to be a lot of work. Here in Thurston County we really believe in using evidence-based practices and data to drive our policy and procedures. We’re fortunate here — our criminal justice stakeholders have previously collaborated on multiple occasions to improve our criminal justice system. So this seemed like something that would tie in with where we need to go. Arnold Ventures’ goals align with the work that we have been doing to redesign our pretrial services systems.

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Arnold Ventures

What do you hope to achieve?

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Judge Christine Schaller

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. We’re also hoping that being a Research-Action Site will help inform us when it comes to evaluating conditions of release in general and whether the correct number of people are being held pretrial. We’re hoping to keep jail resources dedicated to high-risk offenders and that we preserve public safety as our number one goal. We want to get the right balance between the public feeling safe while ensuring that people aren’t in jail just because they can’t afford to get out. We also hope to address any disparity issues which may exist.

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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 Christine Schaller

I don’t think we can be successful unless we have everyone on board for this project. It will take all of us working together. Fortunately, we've had a lot of collaboration in Thurston County specifically related to criminal justice issues. We recently concluded a project that was a major change in our pretrial criminal process. It’s been a two-year process involving prosecutors, defense attorneys, the courts, the corrections department, clerk, the sheriff, and others. We recognize that that project was successful because everybody was on board and came to a consensus. We also need the community on board to understand what we are trying to achieve to better serve everyone in Thurston County.

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Arnold Ventures

How does this initiative support your public safety goals?

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Judge Christine Schaller

Implementing and validating the public safety assessment for Thurston County is going to provide additional information for our courts to identify risk for violence and risk of flight, which will help improve the courts’ decision-making. The goal is to maximize both public safety and release, while making sure that people attend their court hearings. Public safety is a significant concern for all involved.

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Arnold Ventures

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

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Judge Christine Schaller

They demonstrate that our county is dedicated to following best practices and to ensuring that all peoples’ rights in our community are upheld. They also help diminish any concerns about bias, either actual or implicit, through the use of tools like the public safety assessment. Utilizing research also identifies areas for improvement and allows our leadership to drill down into areas that we need to focus on. It holds the system accountable.