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Q&A: Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research

In Fulton County, Risk Assessment Aims to Address Mental Health Issues

Judge Robert McBurney hopes a more robust, data-driven, screening tool can help divert people from the criminal justice system to community resources.

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This is part of a series of Q&As with judges from counties selected as Research-Action Sites for the Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research initiative. 

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. Today we are speaking with Judge Robert McBurney of Fulton County, Georgia.

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Arnold Ventures

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

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Judge Robert McBurney

We have an outdated but heavily used and relied upon pretrial screening tool. So we were looking for something more state-of-the-art, and based on Arnold Ventures’ reputation in this area, their tool seemed like a great fit. We have a need for a tool that is more current, and this initiative will give us the opportunity to help shape how it works.

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Arnold Ventures

What do you hope to achieve?

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Judge Robert McBurney

It’s important to have fully informed bail decisions, but the larger question is what we’re doing with the people who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Are there ways to partner with community providers to divert people out of custodial situations? We’re very much in the process of exploring that in Fulton County. Our county jail is currently the second largest mental health facility in Georgia. That’s not what it’s designed to do, that’s not what jailors are trained to do, but we have a large segment of our criminal justice population that suffers from mental health issues. The more we can develop diversionary responses with mental health concerns, the better. So we want to develop the public safety tool, but we also want to go deeper.

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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 Robert McBurney

Because that’s the only sustainable approach. As chief judge, I could decide to adopt the tool that’s being developed, and deploy it unilaterally. But there would be no buy-in from two critical stakeholders — the district attorney’s office and the public defender's office. It’s important to have those folks on board, and it’s important to have our sheriff on board, because that’s where folks go first when they’re arrested.

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Arnold Ventures

How does this initiative support your public safety goals?

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Judge Robert McBurney

The vision is that by having a more robust, data-driven, customizable screening tool, we’ll have more accurate inputs into the bail decision-making process. We’re feeling the need acutely in Fulton County because of some high-profile bail misfire decisions that have been made in the past 18 months. There’s a lot of community pressure around questions of bail. People want to know why certain defendants are getting signature [personal recognizance] bonds. That’s coming into tension with efforts to eliminate cash bail, especially at the misdemeanor level. Why would we hold someone for six weeks because he can’t find $50 to get out of his jaywalking case? That’s a valid concern. The goal is to have optimal public safety outcomes by keeping in jail people who are a risk to themselves or others. For others who aren’t a risk and are going to come back to court, let’s get them back out in society so they can be at work, be with their family.

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Arnold Ventures

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

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Judge Robert McBurney

Nobody is perfect, but we can decrease the likelihood that we make mistakes in pretrial release decisions. The goal is to reduce the incidence of these public outcries that can be akin to people with pitchforks threatening to burn down the courthouse if we don’t lock everybody up. That’s never the right solution. If we have a more robust, data-driven model behind the decision-making, we’ll be better able to address concerns that judges are soft on crime. It’s important to receive community feedback, and I don’t want to isolate judges from that. But it would be helpful to share with concerned groups the tools that we’re relying upon, in part, to make our decisions.