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Q&A

Where the Rubber Meets the Road: Transforming Pretrial Systems in Service of Equity and Fairness

Welcome to the world of pretrial implementation, where experts versed in system change translate calls for reform into concrete steps for government stakeholders.

In the wake of policing protests, Americans have donated $90 million to community bond funds to ensure protesters aren’t held in jail for days, weeks, or longer simply because they can’t afford the price of their bond.

But what if bond funds were no longer necessary? The irony of bonding out protesters is that the uniquely American institution of bond is a prime example of unequal access to justice—one of the very issues protesters are demonstrating against. Many, if not all, bond funds exist as a temporary stop gap, a way to address the urgent reality that while wholesale reform of the system is needed, the hundreds of thousands of people wasting away in jails now because they can’t afford their bond don’t have time to wait.

The good news is that systemic reform of states’ pretrial systems—the technical term for the phase of the system before adjudication—is slowly happening, propelled by a loud and bipartisan consensus that money bond systems are economically and racially discriminatory and that other reforms are strongly desired and desperately needed.

The judges, pretrial services managers, court administrators, and other stakeholders tasked with changing government systems know that the success or failure of any reform, no matter how well-meaning, can rest in how artfully new ideas are translated into policy and practice, and then faithfully (and transparently) tested. The scientific world of implementation is, in essence, where a community’s values and principles must be made actionable and measurable.

The Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research (APPR) project plays a unique role in the pretrial reform landscape because it helps local court systems implement new, comprehensive, evidence-based policies—and then rigorously evaluate them to ensure they’re moving communities towards greater justice, providing governments and communities with data that ensures both transparency and accountability.

At a time when their mission is more urgent than ever, we sat down with APPR leaders Mimi Carter, Principal at the Center for Effective Public Policy, and Alison Shames, CEPP Senior Associate.

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Arnold Ventures

How does the APPR project fit into the national bail reform landscape?

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Mimi Carter

This is a great question, given that, for the longest time, there was very little attention paid to the pretrial phase of the justice system—in contrast to today, when there are many organizations and voices expressing interest in this work.

We see our role as operationalizing what it means to administer a fair, equitable, and just pretrial system. We seek to translate the values that animate bail reform into concrete terms that can guide those on the ground who want to improve their pretrial policies, practices, and outcomes.

Our mission is to demonstrate equitable improvements in pretrial outcomes through high-fidelity implementation and comprehensive research on pretrial assessments, policies, and practices. If that sounds wonky and technical, that’s because it is. APPR is where the proverbial rubber meets the road.

To carry this out, we are building an array of tools and resources for use at the jurisdictional level. We are also providing direct assistance to people in the field in the forms of training, technical assistance, and consultation. And, we are engaging in conversations with people from all sectors of the work—including the media—to bring our voice and perspective to the national discussion on pretrial justice.

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Arnold Ventures

How is APPR evolving implementation of the Public Safety Assessment (PSA)?

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Alison Shames

We believe that actuarial assessments such as the PSA can help judicial officers and other professionals make informed pretrial decisions. However, research shows us that a pretrial assessment should be just one component of a jurisdiction’s efforts to improve its pretrial system.

One way we are evolving PSA implementation is to make clear in our resources and direct assistance that the PSA is only one piece of a wider set of solutions aimed at achieving pretrial justice. We are also being deliberate in explaining that the PSA does not make a pretrial decision; all it does is provide information that helps a judicial officer make a more informed decision.

For example, in our policy guidance, we explain that since most people are successful pretrial, the primary role of pretrial assessment is to determine what, if any, conditions of release will help people succeed while on pretrial release. The PSA scores are never the rationale for detention. We make clear that detention is a legal decision that is made by a judicial officer, based on the law, after a detention hearing is conducted with full due process.

Additionally, our materials and assistance focus on how to ensure that the PSA is used responsibly, in ways that make it more likely the jurisdiction will achieve its desired outcomes. To that end, we emphasize the importance of local validation, fidelity to the implementation model, and performance measurement, including measuring disparities.

Finally, in our work with jurisdictions, we are urging system stakeholders to meaningfully engage with community members and consider the needs and interests of people directly impacted by the pretrial system.

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Arnold Ventures

What does the future of APPR look like?

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Mimi Carter

APPR was established just over a year ago. During this time, we’ve built an infrastructure to support accomplishing our vision and mission. We have established relationships with partners, pretrial professionals of all sorts, and a number of jurisdictions. We introduced our new website and started an online community for pretrial professionals to ask questions and share their experiences. We are about to launch a new model of technical assistance, which features an online learning platform.

Our future work includes expanding those relationships, continuing to build practical resources for our partners in the field, and elevating our voice in the pretrial space.

We are expanding our technical assistance and resources aimed at addressing disparities in pretrial justice—particularly racial disparities—and meaningful community engagement. Finally, our future work includes an emphasis on building the capacity of others who can carry the APPR vision forward. Not just members of our project team, but people throughout the nation. A sneak peek into our future includes a lot of capacity building!

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Arnold Ventures

Why the redesign of psapretrial.org to the new APPR site?

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Alison Shames

PSApretrial.org was launched in 2018 by Arnold Ventures. Its main purpose was to make the PSA available to the general public—to any jurisdiction that wanted to implement it, as well as to any individual or organization that wanted to learn more about it. The site achieved its goals: many more jurisdictions now use the PSA and thousands of people visited the site and accessed the PSA implementation guides.

But APPR’s mission goes beyond the PSA, and includes implementing and demonstrating improvements in the pretrial field more broadly. So, while advancingpretrial.org continues to serve as the online home for the PSA—including newly updated guides and resources to help with PSA implementation—its focus is pretrial justice more generally. The PSA is a component of making pretrial improvements, but it’s not the centerpiece.

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Arnold Ventures

Tell us about the new forums and resources for jurisdictions looking to implement pretrial reform.

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Alison Shames

We hope that our new website, advancingpretrial.org, becomes a key resource for people engaged in the process of improving their pretrial systems. In the pretrial justice section, we demonstrate many of the decision points where there are opportunities to improve the system and achieve desired goals.

As this section makes clear, there are quite a few points throughout a person’s encounter with the pretrial system—from their first interaction with a law enforcement official to the moment they come before a judicial officer—where system stakeholders could make different decisions that lead to greater equity.

We list a series of policies and practices that APPR believes are necessary to build a fair, just, and effective pretrial system. We want to be very clear about what we stand for and what we don’t.

APPR also published a glossary, which provides the field with concise, practical definitions of common pretrial terms.

In addition, we launched a new online forum for pretrial practitioners that we call the APPR Community. The APPR Community is a place to connect with pretrial colleagues, share experiences, and ask questions.

Many people who visit our website use the PSA, and we wanted to provide a space for them to ask their peers about the PSA, the use of pretrial assessments generally, and the full range of potential pretrial improvements. Members of the APPR team, as well as our network of pretrial practitioners, are poised to contribute to discussions on the APPR Community.

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Arnold Ventures

If people walk away knowing one thing about APPR, what would you want it to be?

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Mimi Carter

While led by the Center for Effective Public Policy, APPR comprises a consortium of organizations and individuals who understand the pretrial world—its promises and potential, and its challenges and weaknesses.

The APPR team’s eyes are cast high on a vision of fair, just, effective pretrial practices, every day, throughout the nation. We have a core set of principles that are hard to argue with, but also hard to realize.

Michelangelo said that “the greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark.”

We want people to know that APPR is aiming high, and we believe that, in partnership with others, we can make significant and demonstrable improvements in the pretrial field.