This story was originally posted on Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research.
Growing up, Betsy Keller witnessed how poor pretrial practices harmed people. Her father, who owned an automotive repair business, routinely received calls from his employees and customers asking for help paying their money bond to get out of jail. He usually agreed, knowing that if he didn’t, they could be detained for months awaiting trial and likely lose their jobs, vehicles, and homes. Now, in her role as the chief administrator in El Paso County, Texas, that reality has come full circle. Keller was fortunate to work under the leadership of a governing body that supported reforms and with a judicial system willing to develop the county’s robust data system. Today, she helps officials pinpoint and implement pretrial improvements that make their system more effective and efficient.
“Being in jail, even for a short period on a fairly minor offense, can impact someone’s life forever,” said Keller. “That’s why the work we’ve done here is so important.”
When Keller started working for the county 15 years ago, officials tracked only a few pretrial metrics. In her leadership role, the Commissioners Court, the county’s governing body, gave her support to build the county’s capacity to collect and analyze data. Now, data informs and drives crucial reforms while enhancing community safety and well-being.
Investing in Research and Data
Building an effective data infrastructure required a three-pronged investment. First, in 2018, the county hired staff researchers experienced in analyzing justice-related data. Their first task was to validate the county’s pretrial assessment tool to ensure it met good predictive standards. The study confirmed that judges received research-based information to help inform appropriate release conditions.
Next, El Paso officials worked with the University of Texas, El Paso, to conduct the second phase of validation. The public research university conducted a robust evaluation of how the tool worked in practice.
Finally, the county invested in powerful analytic tools. Before making the investment, officials worked with consultants who had access to advanced data systems and had conducted research in other Texas counties. This allowed them to compare data systems and ensure they chose the most rigorous analytic tools.
amount El Paso County has saved by reducing unnecessary pretrial detention
The county now invests $250,000 each year in staff and consultants to help analyze and make sense of their system data. Joel Bishop, executive director of El Paso County’s Justice and Community Services, secured funding for the project. The return on this investment has been significant: El Paso County has saved $5.6 million by reducing unnecessary pretrial detention and has the data to show that improvements have coincided with a positive impact on community safety.
“The county promotes best practices,” he said. “The commissioners are looking for direction on how to wisely spend county funds. It wasn’t very hard for me to convince them that we needed to invest in research and data, especially given that we have a data-driven Chief Administrator like Betsy Keller.”
Bishop said that he hasn’t always worked in counties willing to invest. In those settings, he’s still achieved better data by assigning projects to tech-savvy staff. “I know what it’s like to not have a budget, and I know what it’s like to have a budget. In both ways, we’ve come out with some really, really good data,” he said. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Reviewing Data Collaboratively
El Paso County’s data system provides a dashboard that shows trends in the county’s justice system, including pretrial outcomes, arrests, court appearance rates, and mental health diversions. To steer the project, the county convened the Justice Leadership Coordinating Council (JLCC), a group of key system stakeholders such as the sheriff, county judge, county commissioners, the public defender, and district attorney. The panel meets weekly to discuss the dashboard’s findings and implement solutions to any issues.
“One of the people on the calls will say hey, you know we have an issue we need to look at. And then we’ll actually often go to the dashboard and start to pull information and ask questions about the data,” said Michael Cuccaro, executive director for the Council of Judges and head of a year-long effort to create the JLCC.
We’re breaking down the silos and trying to really get to the heart of problems and solve them together.Michael Cuccaro executive director for the Council of Judges
“We’re breaking down the silos and trying to really get to the heart of problems and solve them together,” he added.
Cuccaro said the county is constantly working to improve outcomes and credited its success to a collaborative spirit among stakeholders. “There’s a bit of openness, there’s a willingness to collaborate, to reach your greater good, which is to ensure constitutional protections and guarantees for our community in the way we process.”
Data In Action
The data’s findings have helped spur real-time change within El Paso’s pretrial system. For example, they showed stakeholders that longer stays in jail correlated with a greater likelihood of someone being re-arrested. It has been important for officials to consider this when making decisions about who should be in jail and who should be released. In turn, the availability of data has allowed the county to track the impact of its changes.
The data has shown that, as El Paso’s pretrial system eliminated a standard money bond schedule and moved to informed and deliberate decisions about pretrial release and detention, violent crime rates steadily decreased to the lowest levels in recent history. It also indicated that certain racial disparities caused by the money bond schedule may have leveled out after the bond schedule was eliminated.
Pretrial Outcomes Measures
El Paso County’s investment in data allows system stakeholders, policymakers, and community members to measure their pretrial justice system’s performance.
Data collected by the county shows the following:
- 8 percent reduction in average jail bed days for all people pretrial for the four years following the reform efforts, totaling more than 90 beds per day
- 94 percent appearance rate for people who received personal recognizance bonds in 2022
- 68 percent reduction in missed court appearances after the creation of virtual court, averting 1,100 warrants
- 26 percent reduction in the pretrial jail population for people charged with the lowest misdemeanor charge
- 30 percent reduction for people facing mid-level felony charges, indicating that people charged with low-level crimes were not jailed simply because they could not afford to pay their bond
- 12 percent reduction in re-arrest rates for higher-risk clients
- An increase in pretrial detention for those charged with violent felony crimes and capital crimes
Data Informs Continuous Improvement
The data continues to inform ongoing pretrial improvement. After officials noted a backlog of cases during the pandemic, they invested in a virtual plea center where defendants pled online in thousands of cases. Almost everyone received probation, closing the pretrial phase of their cases.
The data also provides insight into judicial workloads. When it showed that one judge faced a backlog, another stepped in to take hundreds of cases to keep the system moving. “When you have your finger on the pulse of the data, you can readjust and realign resources where they need to be to become more efficient and effective,” said Bishop.
Importantly, El Paso’s data infrastructure has led county officials to establish goals to enhance their pretrial system. These include ensuring that the right people are released without financial release conditions and do not languish behind bars. And the county’s creation of the pretrial assessment tool has led to more people receiving appropriate pretrial supervision based on individual needs.
As a bonus, county officials have countered inaccurate rumors about crime rates by pointing to the data. In fact, the data infrastructure has been so effective that some people have had a hard time believing it. “Some are surprised that the outcomes are as good as they are,” he said.
El Paso officials want to continue to use data to strengthen their community. For example, they plan to analyze how legislative reforms impact the pretrial population.
For pretrial practitioners just starting out or interested in exploring how they can dive into data, Keller said it’s possible to make the change regardless of funding availability. “Come see us,” she said. “You’ll have better outcomes for the people you serve. And you’ll have better financial impacts, which is just an added bonus. It’s a lot of work, but it can be done with very minimal resources. It’s just about bringing all key system stakeholders together. And once you get going, the momentum carries itself.