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Q&A: Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research

Risk Assessment in Montgomery County Balances Individual Liberty with Public Safety

Alabama Judge Johnny Hardwick hopes Arnold Ventures-funded initiative can help create a more structured pretrial release program.

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This is the second in a series of Q&As with judges from counties selected as Research-Action Sites for the Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research initiative. Read about North Carolina's Catawba County here.

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. Next up is Judge Johnny Hardwick of Montgomery County, Alabama.

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Arnold Ventures

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

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Judge Johnny Hardwick

I thought it was an excellent opportunity to gain some technical assistance to modify and improve our pretrial services practices. When I heard there was a solicitation for proposals, we decided to submit an application. And we’re very elated that we were selected to participate in the process.

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Arnold Ventures

What do you hope to achieve?

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Judge Johnny Hardwick

I hope we gain an understanding of what, statistically, is going on in our jurisdiction. Secondly, we want to validate a local risk assessment tool that we can use to create a more structured pretrial release program.

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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 Johnny Hardwick

Because of the shared information, the collective knowledge from all the stakeholders and partners. You can learn from their experiences without going through the trials and errors they might have gone through. It’s vitally important that they share that information.

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Arnold Ventures

How does this initiative support your public safety goals?

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Judge Johnny Hardwick

We hope to be making more informed decisions about who to release and who to detain. A lot of times it’s a stab in the dark as to whether you get accurate information about someone you’re considering releasing. Now, we’ve got to balance individual liberty with public safety. And the best way to do that is to weigh the different factors and come to an informed decision. There’s research saying that you really shouldn’t mix low-risk folks with high-risk folks. Sometimes we over-supervise low-risk people who don’t need to be incarcerated. Then there are some folks who really need to be incarcerated.

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Arnold Ventures

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

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Judge Johnny Hardwick

The research will hopefully tell us, historically, who we’ve seen in our system, what their conditions of release were, and how they did under those conditions. Knowing that, we’ll be in a better position to decide what to do in the future.