For Patrick Covington Sr., each day spent in jail awaiting trial only reinforced the bad habits that put him behind bars.
Over the course of two decades, the Chicago native — who had developed a drug and alcohol addiction at the age of 14 — was sent to Cook County Jail more than half a dozen times. Unable to afford his money bond, he’d stay until he had his day in court, sometimes as long as a year. And there, within the confines of one of the largest county jail systems in the United States, he would find himself involved with the wrong crowds and caught up in the negative influences. Within days of his release, he’d be back to using drugs.
The cycle only stopped when, after his last arrest in 2008, instead of jail time the judge gave him house arrest with the opportunity to participate in a daily, supervised pretrial program that addressed his substance abuse and introduced him to formerly incarcerated people who proved that he could turn his life around.
That kind of program “is a must in pretrial,” said Covington, 51, who today works as a contractor in central bond court for the Cook County Public Defender’s Office and is the co-founder of a nonprofit that helps justice-involved individuals. “People have to understand that they have a problem. If they don’t understand, it’s just going to be a recurring thing.”
A new data-rich study on the associations of pretrial detention supports Covington’s lived experience. The study found, in part, that jailing a person for any amount of time before trial is associated with an increased likelihood of a rearrest. This finding does not include examining the cases where a person remained detained throughout the pretrial stage.
“While the potential for a ‘deterrent effect’ of incarceration is enticing — and one that judges often assume will occur — the evidence suggests this effect does not exist,” the study states.
The study’s findings outline the ways in which detaining a person pretrial can do more harm than good and have cascading negative consequences on a community’s safety.
“Too often, pretrial decision-makers don’t consider the negative impacts of detention,” said Alison Shames, a director at the Center for Effective Public Policy who helps lead the Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research initiative. “Having an empirically based study that demonstrates that detention at pretrial for any amount of time — before someone is found guilty — can make that person and the community less safe, that’s a really important point.”
The Harms of Pretrial Detention
Detaining a person in jail for even one day before they’ve been found guilty or innocent of a crime can have lasting effects on that person’s life and does not guarantee the safeguards most people assume detention provides, according to the new study, “The Hidden Costs of Pretrial Detention Revisited.”
Researched and written by Core Correctional Solutions with support from Arnold Ventures, the study builds upon a 2013 analysis that offered similar findings. This time, however, researchers went back to the topic armed with more data — on nearly 1.5 million people booked into a jail in Kentucky between 2009 and 2018 — and more rigorous statistical analyses.
While the 2013 study concluded that detention exceeding three days wasn’t associated with a significant deterrent effect on outcomes such as failure to appear or rearrest, the new study finds that any amount of time spent in custody pretrial was not associated with any consistent public benefit.
Specifically, researchers found that pretrial detention is associated with a “consistent and statistically significant increase” in the likelihood of a new arrest pending trial and that increasing the amount of time spent in pretrial detention was “not consistently related to the odds of failing to appear in court.” In other words, people who are never detained pretrial are no less likely to appear for court than people who are detained for a period of time before trial.
The Devastating Impact of Pretrial Detention
America incarcerates almost half a million people pretrial every day. Arnold Ventures’ Vice President of Criminal Justice Ezekiel Edwards talks about the devastating impacts for those caught up in the system.
Researchers also found that people who were detained in jail were more likely not only to receive a prison sentence but to receive a longer one compared to someone who never spent a day behind bars pretrial. That finding alone shows that the harmful impact of pretrial detention is not just immediate — it’s long-lasting, said Christopher Lowenkamp, a principal investigator at Core Correctional Solutions and author of the “Hidden Costs” report.
“There’s the immediate impact of being detained pretrial and there’s the subsequent impact that bleeds over into the sentencing phase,” Lowenkamp said. “So that to me really underscores the importance of investigating and addressing pretrial detention.”
Even those who were immediately released back into their communities pretrial but ended up being rearrested or failed to appear in court were more likely to be treated less harshly than those who were detained, according to the study. Shames said the finding confirms what she’s seen and what public defenders often say: If you release someone, they can actively participate in their own defense, which can often help their case.
“The other thing that helps is when you’re released into the community, the defense lawyer is able to go to the prosecutor and say, ‘Let’s reach a plea here: My client has been safely in the community, doing his or her job, taking care of their family, getting an education, coming to every court hearing, they’re a good person, let’s lower this and work this out to let them continue living their life.’ And that is very, very powerful to prosecutors in figuring out a plea and to a judge when deciding a sentence,” Shames said.
People who are never detained pretrial are no less likely to appear for court than people who are detained for a period of time before trial.
Judges consider many things when making the weighty decision of whether to release or detain pretrial — including concerns for community safety and the need for the charged person to show up for court. Some states and counties estimate a person’s likelihood of appearing at court and avoiding rearrest with the Public Safety Assessment (or PSA), an actuarial pretrial assessment tool. But judges still have the final say.
The concern that a person released from jail will commit a violent crime before their trial often carries weight in a judge’s decision, but advocates for criminal justice reform hope that incidents like what happened in Waukesha, Wisconsin — where a man who was out on cash bail steered his SUV into a Christmas parade last year, killing six people — won’t blind leaders to the fact that new violent crimes during the pretrial phase are exceedingly rare while overuse of pretrial detention can be harmful to the public.
Research from New Mexico found that 95% of people charged with felonies were not arrested for a violent crime while on pretrial release. In fact, researchers found only 13 out of 10,000 analyzed cases in which someone committed a new first-degree felony while waiting for trial. And an analysis of bail reform in Texas found that recidivism rates remained unchanged after misdemeanor courts created a presumption of release for most cases.
Meanwhile, fear-mongering claims about pretrial reform are routinely debunked. Partisans who point to rare and sensationalized headlines as a reason to roll back reforms are often forced to backtrack when confronted with objective data.
“No policy will protect us from these isolated tragedies,” said Kristin Bechtel, director of criminal justice research for Arnold Ventures. “It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about them and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t honor the people who have been lost — we absolutely should. I just don’t think an isolated tragedy should be used as an example for how most people behave when they are released during pretrial. Research shows us that most people are successful and can be safely released.”
‘I Lost So Much’
The harms outlined in the “Hidden Costs” study are on top of the already proven negative associations that pretrial detention has for people who are made to live behind bars for days, months, or even years before a verdict has even been reached on their guilt or innocence.
When Nicholas Gooskos was arrested for gun and drug-related charges in December 2020, his life was turned upside down. At age 41, he had never been in handcuffs before, never been in trouble with the law. And despite being a lifelong resident of his community and a 21-year employee of the U.S. Postal Service, he was detained in the Monmouth County, New Jersey, jail for 361 days while waiting for his case to be heard.
What happened to me over this past year, it’s stuff I could never imagine in my wildest dreams.Nicholas Gooskos
Gooskos received the lowest possible score on the PSA — meaning he was very likely to attend court hearings and avoid rearrest. But Gooskos said he was told by a judge that he was a danger to his community and a danger to his family and would not be released.
During his year in jail, his mother died, and he was unable to attend the funeral. His daughter turned 5. And his wife had to make do without her husband’s salary.
“What happened to me over this past year, it’s stuff I could never imagine in my wildest dreams,” said Gooskos, now 42. “I lost so much. I lost a career, I lost my mom, I lost my freedom. I did something wrong, but I don’t feel like I did something that was worth losing everything over. And in accordance with my PSA score, I don’t think they thought so, either.”
His case is a complicated one. Gooskos said he was holding on to what turned out to be imitation drugs for a friend and had among his legally purchased guns one that was bought in accordance with the law in Pennsylvania but was illegal in New Jersey. By the time he was finally released in November 2021, the drug charges had been dropped, but he had lost a year of his life.
One thing that didn’t help his case, Gooskos said, was that he never had a chance to speak for himself — to connect with the people who were making decisions about his life.
Because hearings took place over video, “all you are doing is looking at a piece of paper, and it looks like I’m a bad person, but I’m not,” Gooskos said. “There was no way I could get a personal connection with the prosecutor or the judge.”
Bechtel of Arnold Ventures said the way the system is run makes it easy for that detachment to occur.
“We look at individuals in the criminal legal system and we detach from them until they’re not a family member, a friend, or a loved one,” Bechtel said. “People may perceive that if someone is arrested by the police, that they must have done something, they’re in jail and they’re still there, and then we pass further blame and victimization and trauma on them and their families.
“Their children, their families, their communities, their neighborhoods, they’re all suffering,” Bechtel said. “There’s quite a bit of money that goes into jailing someone — and we should be looking for opportunities to put in place services to address the needs of individuals within their community.”
Pretrial Services: ‘Far More Effective’
The “Hidden Costs” study notes that offering resources to those in the pretrial phase is far more effective than simply leaving them in jail. Lowenkamp said criminal justice agencies often are only looking at current outcomes, not what might happen down the road. If they looked at the bigger picture, they might see that offering people help instead of jail time could be significantly more effective, he said.
The benefit of true pretrial services — not just a reporting program but one in which people are actively getting help daily — was enormous for Covington.
Back in 2008 – 2009, after what would be his last arrest, Covington spent 13 months in the Cook County Sheriff’s Day Reporting Center, a supervised program that provided services and direction for those awaiting trial on nonviolent charges. Those in the program were typically on house arrest and were required to report to the center from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week for daily sessions in drug and alcohol rehabilitation. They were also offered other services including literacy and GED courses, housing programs, and job skills training.
While Covington’s previous stays in the Cook County Jail made him more apt to return to his drug use, the day reporting center gave him a lifeline to something better.
“It was a substance abuse program, you had to be clean to be there, and I said, ‘I’ll give it a try,’” Covington said. “Once you’re there and you start to see all these people clean and you start hearing their stories, it gave you hope, like, ‘OK I can do this.’”
Covington became more active in the day reporting center, leading meetings and gaining the trust of the director. Inspired by the effectiveness of the center, he and three other participants co-founded the nonprofit Alumni Association (Rebirth to Re-Entry) to assist those who have been in the Cook County Jail to successfully reintegrate into society.
When it came time for Covington to negotiate a plea deal, what could have been an eight-year sentence was reduced to four years, including his 13 months pretrial, and then further reduced to time served.
“[The program] let you build a rapport with the judge and prosecutor,” Covington said. “You go back to court and the judge sees what you’ve been doing, and in so many cases, cases were getting dropped. It was a great program.”
Unfortunately, the day reporting center program ended in 2017, but Covington has been actively pushing for its return because he’s seen first-hand the positive effects it had.
“We continue to put people on pretrial services, but if they had a hub where they could have some direction, where they can see others get better and get well,” that would be a game-changer, Covington said. “That’s hope for you.”
Having Evidence ‘Is Very Powerful’
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that detaining people before trial should be the “carefully limited exception,” yet pretrial populations have nevertheless skyrocketed over the past several decades. Researchers and advocates hope that the revisited “Hidden Costs” study will convince lawmakers and judges that pretrial detention should not be the default option.
Through the Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research initiative, Shames works with jurisdictions around the country to improve their pretrial systems. Making changes to these systems can be a deep culture change for most places, Shames said, and to be effective, it’s critical to come at the issue with evidence.
“When you’re used to making decisions in a certain way, day after day, like relying on detention, relying on money in the pretrial decision, to move away from that is very difficult,” Shames said. “Your instinct is, detain someone and that will be the safer option for the community … and it’s hard to convince someone just by talking about it that that’s not a good idea, that it harms the community, that it harms the person. So having the evidence that actually demonstrates that is very powerful.”