Transparent Approach Gives New York City a Clearer Focus on Pretrial Services

The New York City Criminal Justice Agency’s Pretrial Release Dashboard provides nuance to a complex system.

By Matt Keyser
National Partnership for Pretrial Justice
Feb. 4, 2022

Ask most anyone attuned to New York City’s criminal legal system and they’ll likely be able to tell you the city’s jail population on any given day.

“About 5,500 in jail in New York City, plus or minus 500 people,” said Aubrey Fox, executive director of the New York City Criminal Justice Agency [CJA]. The CJA, founded in 1973, provides round-the-clock support to those released pretrial to ensure they fulfill their court obligations.

However, ask those same people about the city’s pretrial system — how many people are jailed pretrial or how many people are released pretrial — on any given day, and the answer wasn’t always so clear.

“No one knew that number,” Fox said. “I didn’t even know that number.”

That’s now changed thanks to a partnership between CJA and Luminosity, Inc., which released an interactive database called the Pretrial Release Dashboard.

The dashboard gives users a detailed look into the city’s pretrial system and provides nuance to a complex system.

The data can be distinguished by charge (a misdemeanor or lesser charge to a violent felony charge), arrest type, and release type (such as if the person charged was released on recognizance or posted bail). Users can also filter whether anyone released pretrial faces new charges. Though individual cases are tracked for a year, no personal information is shared.

“For the first time, New York City can paint a complete picture of its entire pretrial population,” said Dr. Marie VanNostrand, the founder and director of data analytics for Luminosity, Inc.

The New York City Criminal Justice Agency’s Pretrial Release Dashboard provides nuance to the city’s complex pretrial system. Photo: nycja.org

The dashboard adds a layer of transparency to the city’s legal system that wasn’t always readily available, Fox said.

Data is pulled from New York City jails, namely Rikers Island, but as VanNostrand notes, “examining the pretrial community population requires multifaceted data from many sources, including information related to the arrest process, charging decision, court events, judicial release decision, jail booking and release events, and more. This information must be obtained from multiple sources of data and then connected together in ways it was not designed for.”

That transparency comes at a time when New York’s bail reform law has come under attack. In January 2020, lawmakers largely eliminated wealth-based detention for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, charges that consisted of more than 90 percent of arrests in the state, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. [Vera is an NPPJ partner].

Opponents of the law claim those changes have led to a spike in crime by people released pretrial.

The data, however, shows a different story.

Of the 41,485 people on pretrial release in December 2021 – the most recent month recorded – 96% were not charged with a new crime in that month.

That remains true dating back to 2019, before the state’s new bail laws went into effect.

In January 2019, when the dashboard’s data begins — and one year to the month before the bail laws were implemented — the same percentage of the more than 57,000 people arrested were not charged with a new crime in that month.

By tracking cases each month as they work through the system, Fox said stakeholders have much more updated information about the pretrial system. Other methods of tracking pretrial release involve taking a select group of people arrested pretrial and following their cases for a year, spending months analyzing that data, and releasing a report a year or more later.

“You may have a two- or three-year lag time,” Fox said. “And so us reporting on a month-to-month basis, we can see the picture of total population and where trends are moving.”

Because CJA is involved with pretrial services, the agency has a quicker response to address those trends.

Fox declined to make any broad takeaways about how bail laws have affected public safety in New York City based on the dashboard, instead turning to his internal optimism about the conversations he believes it can foster.

“Data can’t provide the final answer to complicated questions,” he said. “The dashboard allows you to really look at complex questions and make your own judgments.

“And my hope is it supports a healthier dialogue about criminal justice reform — one that is not about absolutes, but more about nuance and hard data.”