This story was originally posted on Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research.
The population of Cass County, Indiana, is 37,500. If all its residents attended an NFL game at the smallest stadium in the league, the arena would be only half full. But while it may be a small, rural community, the county answered a very big challenge around pretrial justice and jail crowding.
Before implementing pretrial improvements, the county’s average jail population was nearly 50 percent over capacity, and 70 percent of people in jail were there pretrial — many solely because they could not afford to pay a financial release condition.
In 2018, the county launched Cass County Court and Pretrial Services (CCCPS) and shifted to using evidence-based pretrial practices, including voluntary referrals to supportive services, reduced reliance on monetary bonds as a release condition, and a pretrial assessment tool to inform decision making. The county also collected data to analyze pretrial outcomes and shared that data with all system stakeholders.
By 2022, the jail’s pretrial population had dropped by 80 percent, saving the county nearly $1 million by decreasing unnecessary pretrial detention.
“For me, it’s not just about economic savings,” said Hillary Hartoin, director of CCCPS. “It’s about not holding people who can safely return to their community and connecting them to resources to help them succeed, in turn reserving jail resources for true risks to public safety.”
Supportive Pretrial Services
When people are charged with a crime in Cass County, they are evaluated for their likelihood of pretrial success to determine whether they can spend less time in jail and can return to their homes and workplaces. If released, they receive assistance with court appearances and have the option to volunteer for programming and treatment.
Since opening its doors in 2018, CCCPS has served more than 500 people, with 100 to 115 on pretrial supervision at any given time. People who remain home during the pretrial phase are offered resources, including services related to healthcare, in-house counseling, and treatment for substance use disorder at no cost participants.
“Participation in support services is never court-ordered. We partner with local mental health providers and have an online curriculum in which clients can participate,” said Hartoin, who added that many clients are challenged by substance use disorder and mental health conditions. “You’re getting them at a vulnerable time. They need help now, instead of waiting until the post-conviction phase. Our program helps them through this process, and they have that warm handoff to the next part of their journey.”
When the program launched, Hartoin’s first goal was to track voluntary referrals and participation to analyze the impact on outcomes. In 2022, she set out to increase referrals, and from March to December 2022, CCCPS more than doubled the number of clients voluntarily participating in programs and services. Of those successfully completing the pretrial phase in 2022, 35 percent participated in some form of voluntary programming and services, and less than 3 percent of those who participated in programming had their supervision revoked.
Hartoin, whose work day starts at 4 a.m. with outreach to pretrial clients, says, “These are real people with real rights, real jobs. These are members of the community. To not protect pretrial justice dehumanizes them and devalues our community.”
These are real people with real rights, real jobs. These are members of the community. To not protect pretrial justice dehumanizes them and devalues our community.Hillary Hartoin director of Cass County Court and Pretrial Services
CCCPS, originally under the county’s Adult Probation Department, became an independent county agency in 2020 because of its impressive results and growth in the two years since it launched. The move to an independent department was supported by the Cass County Judiciary, County Council, and Commissioners. While there are over 50 pretrial agencies in Indiana, CCCPS is one of only two independent agencies in the state.
Evidence-Based Decision Making
While Illinois became the first state to eliminate financial release conditions in September 2023, Cass County had figured out five years earlier how to rely less on money bonds, using evidence-based tools that more than satisfied courts, attorneys, community members, and people who could not afford to post a monetary bond.
People arrested in Cass County are evaluated using the Indiana Risk Assessment Pretrial Assessment Tool (IRAS-PAT), and the information obtained is provided to the judge, prosecutor, and defense counsel. Judges use the information to determine individualized, appropriate conditions of release so people can return to their families and workplaces instead of sitting in jail while their case is pending. In 2022, Cass County hired a dedicated public defender to represent people at first appearance hearings and to meet best practices and Indiana’s pretrial rules.
Studies show that any amount of time in jail can increase the likelihood of a new arrest in the future. In Cass County, 90 percent of eligible people are evaluated and released under the program’s supervision within 12 to 24 hours of arrest, with the average pretrial incarceration length of stay before release to the program being 1.75 days.
eligible people who are evaluated and released under the program’s supervision within 12 to 24 hours of arrest
CCCPS notes that this number would be notably lower if determinations were made on weekends, but as a small rural jurisdiction, Cass County lacks the resources to hire staff for weekend hearings. In many cases, someone who is booked, evaluated, and released to CCCPS has completed their intake appointment within 4 to 6 hours.
Data Is King
In the program’s first two years, Hartoin used data to build trust with judges, law enforcement, prosecutors, and public defenders. Pretrial performance measure data was shared in a monthly newsletter, contributing to a transparent system. These data reports helped pretrial stakeholders gain trust and respect for the improvements, including releasing more people to supportive pretrial services, using the pretrial assessment results in decision making, and less reliance on monetary bonds.
Now, stakeholders actively participate in sharing data, creating a data set that tells a comprehensive story about CCCPS’ program. The improvements and the ability to monitor pretrial outcomes have led to more people benefiting from pretrial services during the pretrial phase. At the same time, the community feels safe, and Cass County is saving hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Hillary’s success with the Pretrial Release Program has helped our local criminal justice leaders look outside their silos, and the way ‘things have always been done,’ with her focus on data-driven decision making,” said Dave Wegner, director of Cass/Pulaski Community Corrections (CPCC). “Her work has increased collaboration, improved outcomes, and expanded the services available in our community.”
CCCPS reports overwhelming success of people it supervised during the pretrial phase over the first half of 2023:
- 96 percent attended all required court hearings
- 90 percent were not charged with any new offenses during their pretrial period
- 86 percent successfully completed pretrial supervision
- 88 percent received no technical violation of release conditions that resulted in a response or intervention, such as a warrant, by the court
- The success rate of those evaluated and who secured financial release averaged 34 percent lower than those under the supervision of the Pretrial Release
“When people see data that proves positive outcomes, they have more assurance about releasing people back into the community. We try to balance that value of helping that person with the same value of keeping the community safe,” Hartoin said.
Helping Other Jurisdictions
Rural counties face many barriers, including a lack of resources and staff, to implementing high-functioning pretrial services. But CCCPS’s success shows that any jurisdiction can work together to improve their system.
Angela Estes, research director for Indiana Department of Corrections’ Community Corrections Division, says by sharing the tremendous success in Cass County, Hartoin is helping other agencies around the country advance their own data-driven improvements.
“Hillary’s commitment to and passion for this work is a contributing factor to the success of her agency,” Estes said. “She shares her techniques with agencies across Indiana and the nation to advance data-driven pretrial decision making. Her ability to explain complex topics in easy-to-understand solutions helps those who may be intimidated or overwhelmed by using data, or knowing where to start. She has demonstrated the power of collaboration by using data to tell Cass County’s pretrial success story.”
Hartoin advises others to start small, no matter if they work in a small, rural jurisdiction that is interested in creating pretrial services, or in a larger, pre-existing program that is challenged with collecting data due to small budgets or lack of staff.
“I try to tell the whole story that accurately reflects what’s happening, something that engages conversations in pretrial, and maintains support to implement more programming so we can reduce violations,” said Hartoin. “Success coupled with data really helps people have more confidence in the pretrial program. And it is clear that people aren’t being released without intentionality. It’s about making sure pretrial has a voice.”