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COVID-19 Sparks ‘Unprecedented’ Pretrial Reforms, Survey Shows

A new study from the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies shows significant reforms have been enacted across the country, largely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new study from the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies shows significant reforms have been enacted across the country, largely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The survey includes data from 197 jurisdictions across 40 states and Washington D.C., and shows changes that Kristin Bechtel, Director of Criminal Justice Research at Arnold Ventures, which funded the survey, called, “the most dramatic shift in pretrial practice I’ve ever seen.”


Jim Sawyer, NAPSA’s Executive Director, said while the survey collected purely anecdotal evidence, the results provide an important look into real-time pretrial reforms, many of which are considered controversial and would otherwise be difficult to achieve.

“We wanted to learn something, we wanted to see how people were responding to this moment,” Sawyer said. “We wanted to capture all of that, so that we could have a snapshot of this moment of time of what pretrial looks like during a pandemic. And what we saw were really unprecedented levels of reform.”

Since early March, advocates have warned that jails and prisons could quickly become breeding grounds for the deadly virus. As of July 7, there were a total of 57,019 known cases of COVID-19 in prisons across the United States, according to the Marshall Project, 650 of which resulted in death.

A recent study conducted by Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, reports the infection rate of COVID-19 is five times higher in jail and prisons than it is in the outside world. The death rate, the study says, is three times higher.

Overall, Sawyer said the results of NAPSA’s survey show the majority of responding jurisdictions acted swiftly and appropriately to address these frightening numbers and reduce the roughly half-million people who have been incarcerated while awaiting trial in the U.S.

“In short, we saw that a whole bunch of justice system stakeholders did an amazing amount of work to create safe and productive environments for everyone that comes into contact with their system –– including their employees, the attorneys, defendants, all of their families,” Sawyer said. “They did an amazing job, and they did it very quickly.”

NAPSA found that between April 16 and June 1, most of the responding jurisdictions increased their use of video conferencing for court hearings, pretrial release, release on personal recognizance for non-violent crimes (ROR), and cite & release.

They also found that a majority decreased bail amounts, frequency of court hearings, frequency and amount of supervision fee collections, revocations for pretrial supervision for condition violations, and penalties for technical violations.

The survey shows that 81.46 percent of responding jurisdictions increased the release of persons awaiting trial and 65.17 percent increased their use of cite & release. Sawyer said he found these two figures particularly encouraging.

“It’s great to see that so many agencies are releasing more people from custody who probably didn’t need to be in custody to begin with, but they were because they couldn’t afford a money bail,” he said. “As for cite and release, that’s a really positive reform for pretrial. When an officer can intervene without ever taking a person into custody, that’s something we want to be seeing in everyday policing, regardless of whether or not we are in a pandemic.”

In March, NAPSA released the first update to their Standards on Pretrial Release since 2004. Sawyer said their team began working on the revisions in 2016, long before anyone knew what was waiting in 2020.

“It’s really interesting that all of these things that we said in our standards –– like how you do pretrial risk assessments, how you measure for outcomes, how you interview, how you make a recommendation to the court, how you supervise –– all of that is coming to fruition, not because of our standards, but because of the pandemic,” Sawyer said.

According to Sawyer, NAPSA’s revised standards include drastic reforms to pretrial detention practices, including the removal of all financial conditions for release.

“Not just money bail, but other financial considerations as well.” Sawyer said. “And now, all of a sudden, we’re seeing judges not putting money bail on people and have started hearing, ‘No we don’t have to have as many custodial arrests, no we don’t have to do all these technical violations.’”

According to the survey, more than 48 percent of responding agencies increased the release of previously sentenced persons, and 47 percent increased the number of persons released while awaiting arraignment or first appearance.

Almost 60 percent of responding agencies said they reduced bail amounts and more than 53 percent reduced the overall number of criminal complaint filings.

More than 84 percent decreased the number of custodial arrests, meaning the vast majority of responding agencies took steps that drastically reduced police-civilian contact.

“That is a huge number, and it shows another really positive change that suggests a sizable number of jurisdictions are moving closer to NAPSA standards, even though it might not be because of the reasons we hoped,” Sawyer said.

The survey also shows most jurisdictions increased the use of telephone check-ins, electronic monitoring, and virtual reporting, suggesting it is possible to keep in contact with defendants without detaining them.

Sawyer said the results of the survey are promising for a variety of reasons.

“First and foremost, it’s wonderful to see that most jurisdictions are putting in the work and making the changes that are necessary in order to keep people safe. That’s obviously the number one concern right now,” he said. “But in addition, we now have data that actually shows that these types of systemic changes are possible, and they’re possible on a wide scale. The question now is, can we keep them in place?”

What’s more, Sawyer said, is these jurisdictions have not seen dramatic increases in crime rates or recidivism, both of which are common arguments against these types of reform.

“Now we need to have a national dialogue,” Sawyer said. “We need to have a large-scale conversation and talk about how if you could do this during a pandemic and not have terrible things happen — people are not going out and having new criminal activity, people aren’t going out and absconding — if you can do that, why can’t you do that when there’s not a pandemic?”

Not everything was good news, however, as the survey showed most jurisdictions reduced their mental health and substance abuse treatment.

“This was unfortunate to see, but not necessarily surprising, given that it is more difficult to provide these services in a social distancing environment,” Sawyer said.

As for whether or not these agencies will keep the changes that pushed them closer to NAPSA’s 2020 standards, Sawyer said he is cautiously optimistic.

“Only time will tell, but I hope so,” he said. “We’ll be there to help them as much as we can to keep doing what they’ve been doing, and try to make at least our little piece of the justice system a lot more fair to people.”

See more findings from the NAPSA Survey below: