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Q&A: Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research

National Partnership Helps Ensure ‘Equal Protection, Equal Access’ in Pierce County

Judge Stan Rumbaugh says Arnold Ventures-funded initiative can help expand community collaboration around pretrial services.

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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 Stan Rumbaugh of Pierce County, Washington State.

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Arnold Ventures

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

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Judge Stan Rumbaugh

Pierce County is always looking to improve our pretrial services to make them both more effective and more equitable. To have some research-based data in court would greatly facilitate that effort.

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Arnold Ventures

What do you hope to achieve?

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Judge Stan Rumbaugh

We want to get more efficient through evidence-based practices. In providing pretrial services to the public, it’s all about ensuring equal protection, equal access.

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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 Stan Rumbaugh

Our pretrial services department was developed in 2015 in collaboration with our community partners: the prosecutor’s office, the office of public defense, the department of corrections, and other stakeholders. We’re looking to expand those partnerships over the next five years of our participation in the Arnold Ventures project. You want buy-in from all the major players, and you want a better understanding of what courts are doing and why they’re doing it.

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Arnold Ventures

How does this initiative support your public safety goals?

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Judge Stan Rumbaugh

I’m hoping it will provide a method of more accurately assessing defendants’ potential risk to the public before making a pretrial release decision. If you have a research-based, peer-reviewed paradigm within which to make these decisions, it’s probably going to result in better decisions. It’s not just about developing a risk assessment tool, although that’s an important part of it. It has to be a tool that’s normed to our county and takes into consideration our unique features. And it’s only a part of the overall decision-making process. It’s not a computer where if you get a certain score, you get out. There are other factors that go into the decision.

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Arnold Ventures

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

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Judge Stan Rumbaugh

Hopefully the research will improve our ability to make an accurate assessment of risk and needs of pretrial detainees. While we don’t have the ability to order drug treatment or mental health treatment, but we can make them available when it’s appropriate. And those services can decrease the adverse effects of pretrial detention on defendants who, after all, are presumed innocent.