As Dr. Sandra Smith studied the effects of jailing people before they’ve ever been convicted of a crime, a far-too-obvious truth emerged: “Spending more than one day in pretrial detention can have devastating consequences.”
In the United States, nearly 500,000 people per year are held in jail awaiting trial, often because they can’t afford cash bail to buy their freedom. The longer they’re incarcerated, the greater the chances are that they will be fired from their jobs, fall behind on housing payments, lose their vehicles, and accept plea deals that often carry a criminal conviction that can follow them for decades.
Smith, a researcher with Harvard University, and her team of researchers spent three years speaking with people across the country—San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, and Louisville—to get first-hand accounts of how the pretrial system affected their lives. In her report, “A Difference A Day Makes,” she details those effects on five people who spent various amounts of time in the pretrial system. [The names of the people whose stories are shared below have been changed to protect their privacy.]
The individual stories highlight the difference between how a “brush with the law,” and escalating time in pretrial detention, can impact a person’s life and future outcomes.
Cite and Release
In one case, 24-year-old Bryan Cotter, a white man from San Francisco, was stopped outside of a club for providing alcohol to minors.
Cotter, who had no prior criminal record, told Smith he was with three other people and they were about to go inside the club. First, however, they took a drink out of a bottle of alcohol they had been storing in the trunk. Cotter said he didn’t know two of the people he was with were under 21.
They were soon approached by police officers. Because Cotter drove the car, the officers ticketed him.
“You’re lucky you’re not going to jail tonight,” Cotter said the officers told him, according to Smith’s report. Had he been arrested and charged, he would have faced up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Cotter carried on with his night. Weeks later, he appeared before a neighborhood court consisting of community members who would hand down punishment. Again, instead of going to jail, the court ruled that if Cotter admitted guilt and wrote a letter to the court detailing what he wanted to do with his life, his charges would be dismissed. He would have to pay no fines or court costs. He accepted.
“I got lucky,” Cotter told Smith. “I thought it was good for me—the panel—because I didn’t have to pay anything. I didn’t have to go in front of a real judge. I felt like I learned my lesson.”
Smith’s report says that Cotter’s case is an example of how programs like cite and release can hold people accountable for low-level crimes, without introducing them into the legal system through arrest and detention.
Those detained for less than one day highlighted the difficulty of accessing case information, their limited understanding of the intake process, their limited ability to get resources, and the disorientation they felt as a result of being shuffled from one facility to another.Dr. Sandra Smith Harvard University
Less Than a Day in Jail
Not everyone was as fortunate as Cotter.
Mary Adamu, a 24-year-old Black woman from San Francisco, spent nearly a full day in jail after she was arrested for second-degree robbery and drug possession, both felony charges.
Adamu told Smith she was at the gym when she found a phone left on a workout machine. She slipped it in her purse with the intention of turning it in to the front desk. She went to the bathroom first, wherea friend of the phone’s owner approached her and accused of her stealing.
When police arrived, Adamu was arrested. The owner of the phone accused her of stealing $200, too. When police searched her wallet they didn’t find the missing money, but told her they found a small amount of drugs inside. She was taken to the county jail, where she received a $90,000 bond. Adamu had never been in jail, she told Smith, and didn’t understand how the process worked. She knew little about her charges and couldn’t get any answers from jail staff.
Ultimately, a bail bondsman helped her connect with a friend who paid $7,000 to secure her freedom. Adamu spent 16 hours in jail, during which, she told Smith, she felt she had no one to turn to.
Adamu was ultimately placed in a diversion program; if she took 12 classes and paid a fine, her charges would be dismissed. She agreed. But she still owed her friend $7,000 for posting bail, so she was forced to take odd jobs between college and her job as a nanny. She feared both her boss and her parents would find out about the charges, which she kept secret. Five months later, she finished her classes, paid her fines, and repaid her friend.
Adamu said she was pleasantly surprised by how she was treated while in jail. It was cleaner than she expected and overall she was treated like a human being.
“I think I’m really lucky it wasn’t this huge, traumatic experience where I was assaulted in the jail,” she told Smith. “I don’t want to go back or anything. But if I had to say, I’d say three stars. It wasn’t bad.”
In days one through three, detainees continued to be concerned about getting information and resources they needed to be released. At this point, however, material and non-material losses began to accrue. And so while trying to get more information from helpful legal authorities, they also focused their attention on reaching out to family and friends on the outside to help them manage the obligations they could not fulfill.Dr. Sandra Smith Harvard University
One to Three Days in Jail
Heather Horváth struggles to remember the day she was arrested. The 34-year-old from San Francisco last remembers watching a baseball game at a bar with her fiancé. She told Smith she thinks they had been drugged by a bartender. She remembers the mood in the bar got tense and then she was biting a man’s arm as he was choking her.
Both Horváth and her fiancé were arrested. She was taken to the county jail, where she stayed for three days. She recalls the unsanitary conditions, the awful food, and the general misery among the staff and inmates.
“I tried to keep myself together as much as I could, but it was work,” Horváth told Smith. “I feel like I very much didn’t belong there.”
She said she couldn’t get any answers about what was happening with her case. She told Smith that the lawyer she was assigned knew very little about the charges and seemed generally disinterested. She said he encouraged her to take a plea deal or face years in prison.
Smith said Horváth’s case highlights a problem within the system: The lack of answers when a person is jailed pretrial creates immense stress.
“The inability to have anyone address your questions, to find out anything about your case, to be treated by agents of the system in ways that suggested you didn’t matter and they didn’t care,” Smith said. “It was a sense the system didn’t care about them, didn’t care what you had to say, wasn’t giving you any opportunity to defend yourself.”
In most of those cases, Smith said the people jailed had to turn to the other people housed in their cells to find answers to such basic questions as when they would see a judge, how the bonding process works, where their case would go next.
“I think an important part of the story is that these people were let down by a system they assumed would be there when they needed it,” Smith said.
Horváth’s parents helped bail her out and her fiancé told her boss she would miss a few days of work. He lied so that her boss would never know she had been arrested and jailed. Lacking better choices, Horváth accepted a plea deal, which required she take diversion classes and pay court costs and fees, all of which put her into debt that she struggled to pay off for years. She told Smith she was fortunate to have control of her work schedule that allowed her to take her diversion classes during the day, which allowed her to avoid telling her boss about her arrest.
Still, the entire ordeal left Horváth angry. She moved out of San Francisco because of it. And three years after her case was dismissed, she still wasn’t over the experience.
“Everything was really tough afterwards, because I just felt so violated,” Horváth told Smith. “I had this feeling of totally being violated and totally wronged by the system.”
During these days, access to health care also became an issue, and so their primary objective was to gain access to these much-needed resources. Complaints about food and unsanitary conditions grew, but other concerns were highlighted as well. Detainees pointed to hostile, neglectful guards, the odd schedule and rigid rules that were arbitrarily applied, and violence—threatened and enacted, most often unpredictable—by guards and other inmates.Dr. Sandra Smith Harvard University
Four to Seven Days Jailed
Jorge Valenzuela was walking out of a club, intoxicated, one night when he unintentionally walked into a crime scene. Before he realized what was happening, a police officer tackled Valenzuela. The officer beat him; Valenzuela ended up with two black eyes and a broken nose. The officers, Valenzuela told Smith, believed he was connected to the stabbing that took place in that crime scene outside the club.
Police took Valenzuela, a 22-year-old Hispanic man from San Francisco, to a police station. He was charged with battery of a police officer, assaulting an officer, and threatening an officer. He said he struggles to remember exactly what happened, but he questions how he could have done any of what he is accused of while handcuffed.
Valenzuela spent six days in jail. He told Smith he was assaulted, taunted, and threatened by jailers who learned of his charges. He was placed in a cell with a man known for committing sexual assaults. He couldn’t sleep. When he was transferred to a crowded cell, he said a man attacked him and he fought back, to protect himself. He told Smith he stayed up at night and focused on “trying not to die.”
Because Valenzuela was in jail for so many days, he lost his full-time job, though he was able to talk his way back into the role once he was released. He had to drop a class that he needed to receive his EMT certification. And he has incurred more than $3,600 in debt from bail and other fees. Three years later, his case is still pending.
There was a time when Valenzuela considered himself an outgoing person, but he told Smith his arrest and pretrial detention changed that.
“I’m a little more reserved,” he said. “I’m a lot more cautious now.”
Those detained for longer than one week were most concerned with delays they faced during the release process. And so their efforts were directed toward getting information they needed to facilitate release. They were most attentive to odd schedules and rigid rules, poor food quality, and importantly, violence. But they also reported a greater reliance on inmates for protection, for pastime activities, and help in accessing resources, and for advice on getting released.Dr. Sandra Smith Harvard University
Eight or More Days Jailed
For Kevin Basa, being jailed pretrial was no worse than living on the streets. At least in jail he had a roof over his head and three meals a day.
Basa had a series of bad years. First he lost his job. Then his relationship with his pregnant girlfriend ended. And then his family cut ties with him. Basa, a 37-year-old from San Francisco, found himself living on the streets. He began using drugs, trying to cope with depression and anxiety.
The drug use led to charges and prior time in jail. After his son was born, Basa went to meet him but he was caught driving a stolen car. He was arrested again. Unable to afford bail, he spent three weeks in jail on the auto theft charges, before he was released on personal recognizance. Then, he missed court dates and was arrested multiple times for outstanding warrants when officers would stop and frisk him on the streets.
“It’s tough to keep track of those things [court dates] when you’re out on the streets,” Basa told Smith.
As he went in and out of jail, he believed more officers noticed him on and stopped him more frequently because of his record. This cycle affected his relationship with his family. He recalled a conversation to Smith in which some of them told him: “It’s good for you to stay there. It’s a better place for you.”
There was one pivotal point when Basa thought things were trending up. He had an interview for a job he was excited about. A cousin had given him a truck that needed some repairs that he could fix on his own. One day, when he was working on the truck, an officer told him to move it out of a crosswalk. Because it wasn’t running, Basa said he couldn’t but he was working to fix it. When the officer drove by again and the truck was still there, the officer ran Basa’s name and saw he had a warrant. Basa was taken to jail and the truck was towed.
When he was released three weeks later, he learned he had been offered a second interview with the job he wanted, but it was too late. And he didn’t have the money to get his truck out of the impound lot.
Basa finally reached an agreement with a judge. All the warrants and jail time he faced would be dropped in exchange for three years of probation.
Still, Basa told Smith he felt the damage was already done.
“I just feel like I got robbed by the police. I just got robbed by the country,” he told her. “I feel like the system is pulling me down. I don’t know why.”
The effects of pretrial detention on future criminal legal involvement are especially pronounced for … individuals who likely would not have had future involvement had they not been held in detention.Dr. Sandra Smith Harvard University
Accountability Without Detention
As highlighted by Basa’s case, and as Smith’s research shows, the longer a person spends jailed before their case has been settled, the increased likelihood they’ll be arrested and jailed pretrial again.
But as in the case of Cotter, the man ticketed for providing alcohol to minors, holding people accountable for low-level crimes can be done without jailing them.
Ultimately, Cotter said he learned his lesson without having to spend a second in jail.
He told Smith, “It was a win-win situation.”