Report: California criminal justice could rethink treatment of pre-trial detainees

150 150 Christopher Nelson

An empty courtroom awaits attendees to stand trial (photo: OnceAndFutureLaura/Flickr)

Based on the stories told in the media, documentary television like MSNBC’s “Locked Up,” and fictional accounts such as HBO’s “Oz,” it’s easy to assume that California’s vast network of prisons and jails contain an overabundance of hardened criminals and gang-bangers.

State prisons, to be sure, contain those offenders who have been sentenced and will be spending significant time behind bars for a range of crimes.

County jails, on the other hand, are more transient. They deal with misdemeanor offenses and shorter-term sentences than do prisons. 

But most often, they house people who are awaiting trial and have yet to be convicted of any crime. In fact, 71 percent of all jail beds are currently occupied by pretrial detainees. That is a full 10 percent higher than the national average.

While the focus over the past year has rightly been on aiding the reintegration of those transferred back to county care via AB 109 into society so that they return to normal functioning instead of back behind bars, it’s important not to lose sight of the large number of pre-trial detainees which comprise the bulk of any given jail’s population on any given day.

The Partnership for Community Excellence (PCE) was formed by California Forward as a coalition of stakeholders in the California criminal justice system to help deal with the challenges our state faces in implementing AB 109 and the issues surrounding realignment in general.

Today the PCE released a report that details several steps counties could take aimed at reducing their pretrial detainee population and increasing the overall efficiency in how that population is processed. Although every county’s needs and circumstances are different, these steps may ultimately wind up saving money that could be spent elsewhere.

[Read the report on the web right here
[Download it for printing right here

[A truncated fact sheet can be viewed and/or downloaded right here]

“This report details successful alternatives to the detention of low risk pretrial defendants,” said Lenore Anderson, Director of Californians for Safety and Justice. “We encourage local officials to explore and examine options that may both save their county money and provide better outcomes that in the long-run will directly benefit their communities.”

The one key factor that is inflating this population, according to the report, is that detainees stay or go based on their ability to post bail instead of other mitigating factors not tied to their bank accounts.

The result? Low flight-risk offenders without money take up jail beds while higher-risk offenders who have the financial means to post bail are released.

“It’s important for county agencies and local officials to recognize that there is no one-size fits all solution to realignment,” said Sharon Aungst, the PCE’s Director.

From the report:

Making pretrial release decisions based on a detainee’s risk and needs, versus their ability to post bail, is key to improving public safety and offender outcomes. The purpose of this report is to provide a summary of best practices and practical information to assist county leaders in determining how pretrial programs could assist their local jurisdiction. The report includes the following:

  • Summary of national pretrial best practices; 
  • Summary of five California counties’ experiences in effectively implementing pretrial programs; 
  • Suggestions related to offender tracking and data collection and analysis; 
  • Issues for consideration in implementing a pretrial program; and, 
  • Resources including technical assistance available to counties. 

By combing national best practices with what was learned from the five counties featured in the study, the PCE and California Forward hope to provide a holistic approach to changing how California’s criminal justice system conducts itself in this area.

“The experience in these five counties demonstrates that California can earn a new reputation – for reducing costs and reducing crime by focusing on outcomes and putting in place strategies that work,” said Jim Mayer, Executive Director of CA Fwd.

And in the process, one step at a time, California can hopefully shake the reputation it has earned as having one of most expensive and least effective prison systems in the nation.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson