Pretrial reform in North Carolina led to a decrease in the use of money bail, more people being released on their own recognizance, and no increase in failures to appear in court or new crime, according to a study by MDRC that looked at the cases of more than 60,000 individuals in Mecklenburg County.
Mecklenburg County, North Carolina adopted the Public Safety Assessment (PSA) in June 2014 as part of a commitment to reducing unnecessary pretrial detention. To prepare for implementation, the county held trainings for court staff, magistrates, and judges on the standards of pretrial release and detention and the role of risk assessment in determining release conditions.
Researchers at MDRC measured the impact of the PSA and related policy changes on pretrial release conditions, case outcomes, pretrial jail incarceration, court appearance, and arrests for new crimes. MDRC also analyzed how the impact of the PSA differed along different risk levels, races, ages, and charge severities — with a focus the PSA’s effect on racial disparities. The evaluation examined over 90,000 total cases for approximately 60,000 people.
Among other findings, the study showed:
- Decreased use of money bail and an increase in individuals released on their own recognizance (ROR). Six months following the PSA policy changes, there was a 21 percent decline in bail setting compared to the predicted rate and a corresponding 26 percent increase in individuals released on their own recognizance (ROR). This trend continued through the rest of the evaluation, with some minor fluctuations month to month.
- Decreased jail population. The total jail population decreased steadily over time; however, the PSA policies in isolation did not appear to influence the pretrial average daily population, with the number of pretrial defendants decreasing steadily as predicted (down 2 percent over the course of the study period). It is likely that procedural and cultural changes, along with fewer arrests, led to the decrease in the jail population. The greatest reduction in detention occurred for individuals who were held for one or two days.
- The greatest impact on pretrial release conditions occurred at the initial magistrate hearing in the months following implementation of the PSA. This initial hearing occurs prior to when the PSA report is available to judges for reference. Therefore, the PSA information appears to have had, at most, a small effect on the shifts in release conditions. MDRC researchers suggest the change in culture sparked by use of the PSA — in particular, greater emphasis on pretrial release — likely contributed to this effect.
- Little to no evidence of an impact on the court appearance rate or new arrests during the pretrial period. There is some evidence of an increase in felony arrests within one year of pretrial release. However, this finding is not robust compared to the impact of pretrial reform on bail setting. Broadly speaking, researchers found that releasing more defendants before trial had no negative impact on crime or court appearance. This positive trend began before the PSA was adopted and was sustained after implementation.
- The PSA and related policy changes helped reduce pretrial detention for Black and white defendants at an equal rate. It does not appear the PSA reduced existing racial disparities in jail detention. There was no evidence of a difference in impact among moderate and high-risk Black and white defendants. However, for low-risk Black defendants, there was a greater increase in dismissal rates. This might be explained by differences in the types of crimes for which Blacks and whites are charged.
- Fewer low- and moderate-risk defendants were detained or set money bail. There was little change in bail setting practices among high-risk individuals. However, high-risk defendants saw a decline in detention consistent with the general trend towards pretrial release in Mecklenburg. The PSA accurately predicted higher rates of new criminal activity and one-year recidivism for moderate and high-risk defendants.
- The impact of the PSA and related policies was similar among all age groups.
- Judges set conditions consistent with the release conditions matrix — a set of recommendations each jurisdiction develops to correspond to PSA scores — 61 percent of the time.
The findings point to positive outcomes for public safety and reduced use of bail, likely spurred by an overall cultural and procedural shift following implementation of the PSA. However, it is difficult to disentangle the precise influence of the PSA on release decisions vis-à-vis other pretrial interventions and attendant cultural changes. Read the full study here.