‘I Just Felt So Violated’: Harvard Researcher’s Study Shows ‘Devastating’ Effects of Jailing People Pretrial

The more time spent in pretrial detention, the greater likelihood a person has further contact with the penal system, according to Dr. Sandra Smith’s study “A Difference A Day Makes.”

By Matt Keyser

As Dr. Sandra Smith studied the effects of jailing people before they’ve ever been convicted of a crime, a truth emerged that became far too obvious: “Spending more than one day in pretrial detention can have devastating consequences.”

In the United States, nearly 500,000 people per year are held in jail awaiting trial, often because they can’t afford cash bail to buy their freedom. The longer they’re incarcerated, the greater chances they are fired from their jobs, fall behind on housing payments, lose their vehicles, and accept a plea deal that often carries a criminal conviction that can follow them for decades.

Smith, a researcher with Harvard University, and her team of researchers spent three years speaking with people across the country—San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, and Louisville—to get first-hand accounts at how the pretrial system affected their lives. In her report, “A Difference A Day Makes,” she details those effects on five people who spent various amounts of time in the pretrial system. [The names of the people whose stories are shared below have been changed.]

Their outcomes show the benefits of programs such as cite and release for low-level offenses while also highlighting the damaging effects of overcharging crimes and extended jail stays, which can have lasting impacts for years.

Cite and Release

In one case, 24-year-old Bryan Cotter, a white man from San Francisco, was stopped outside of a club for providing alcohol to minors.

Cotter, who had no prior criminal record, told Smith he was with three other people and they were about to go inside the club. First, however, they took a drink out of a bottle of alcohol they had been storing in the trunk. Cotter said he didn’t know two of the people he was with were under 21.

They were soon approached by police officers. Because Cotter drove the car, the officers ticketed him.

“You’re lucky you’re not going to jail tonight,” Cotter said the officers told him, according to Smith’s report. Had he been arrested and charged, he would have faced up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Cotter carried on with his night. Weeks later, he appeared before a neighborhood court consisting of community members who would hand down punishment. Again, instead of going to jail, the court ruled that if Cotter admitted guilt and wrote a letter to the court detailing what he wanted to do with his life, his charges would be dismissed. He would have to pay no fines or court costs. He accepted.

“I got lucky,” Cotter told Smith. “I thought it was good for me—the panel—because I didn’t have to pay anything. I didn’t have to go in front of a real judge. I felt like I learned my lesson.”

Cotter’s case is a shining example of how programs like cite and release can still hold people accountable for low-level crimes without introducing them into the legal system through arrest and detention.

Less Than a Day in Jail

Those detained for less than one day highlighted the difficulty of accessing case information, their limited understanding of the intake process, their limited ability to get resources, and the disorientation they felt as a result of being shuffled from one facility to another.” – Dr. Sandra Smith

Not everyone was as fortunate as Cotter, however.

Mary Adamu, a 24-year-old Black woman from San Francisco, spent nearly a day in jail after she was arrested for second-degree robbery and drug possession, both felony charges.

Adamu told Smith she was at the gym when she found a phone left on a workout machine. She slipped it in her purse with the intent of turning it in to the front desk. She went to the bathroom first, which is when a friend of the phone’s owner approached her and accused of her stealing.

When police arrived, Adamu was arrested. The owner of the phone accused her of stealing $200, too. When police searched her wallet they didn’t find the missing money, but told her they found a small amount of drugs inside. She was taken to the county jail, where she received a $90,000 bond. Adamu had never been in jail, she told Smith, and didn’t understand how the process worked. She knew little about her charges and couldn’t get any answers from jail staff.

Ultimately, a bail bondsman helped her connect with a friend who paid $7,000 to secure her freedom. Adamu spent a total of 16 hours in jail, which she told Smith was a challenge because she felt she had no one to turn to.

Adamu was ultimately placed in a diversion program. If she took 12 classes and paid her fine, her charges would be dismissed. She agreed. But she still owed her friend $7,000 for posting bail and she was forced to take odd jobs between college and her job as a nanny. She feared both her boss and her parents would find out about the charges, which she kept secret. She told Smith she was fortunate to have friends who were so supportive. Five months later, she finished her classes, paid her fines, and repaid her friend.

Adamu said she was pleasantly surprised by how she was treated while in jail. It was cleaner than she expected and overall she was treated like a human being.

“I think I’m really lucky it wasn’t this huge, traumatic experience where I was assaulted in the jail,” she told Smith. “I don’t want to go back or anything. But if I had to say, I’d say three stars. It wasn’t bad.”

One to Three Days in Jail

“In days one through three, detainees continued to be concerned about getting information and resources they needed to be released. At this point, however, material and non-material losses began to accrue. And so while trying to get more information from helpful legal authorities, they also focused their attention on reaching out to family and friends on the outside to help them manage the obligations they could not fulfill.” – Dr. Sandra Smith

 Heather Horváth struggles to remember the day she was arrested. The 34-year-old from San Francisco last remembers watching a baseball game at a bar with her fiancé. She told Smith she thinks they had been drugged by a bartender. She remembers the mood in the bar got tense and then she was biting a man’s arm as he was choking her.

Both Horváth and her fiancé were arrested. She was taken to the county jail, where she stayed for three days. She recalls the unsanitary conditions, the awful food, and the general misery among the staff and inmates.

“I tried to keep myself together as much as I could, but it was work,” Horváth told Smith. “I feel like I very much didn’t belong there.”

The longer a person spends in jail pretrial, the worse the impacts on their lives, said Dr. Sandra Smith, a researcher with Harvard University whose study “A Difference A Day Makes” focuses on the effects of pretrial detention. (Photo: Getty Images)

She said she couldn’t get any answers about what was happening with her case. By the time she was assigned a lawyer, she told Smith he knew very little about the charges and seemed generally disinterested. She said he encouraged her to take a plea deal or face years in prison.

Smith said Horváth’s case highlights a problem within the system: The lack of answers when jailed pretrial creates immense stress.

“The inability to have anyone address your questions, to find out anything about your case, to be treated by agents of the system in ways that suggested you didn’t matter and they didn’t care,” Smith said. “It was a sense the system didn’t care about them, didn’t care what you had to say, wasn’t giving you any opportunity to defend yourself.”

In most of those cases, Smith said the people jailed had to turn to others they were housed within their cells to find answers, such as when they would see a judge, how the bonding process works, where their case went next.

“I think an important part of the story is that these people were let down by a system they assumed would be there when they needed it,” Smith said.

Horváth’s parents helped bail her out and her fiancé told her boss she would miss a few days of work. He lied so that her boss would never know she had been arrested and jailed. Horváth begrudgingly accepted a plea deal, which required she take diversion classes and pay court costs and fees, all of which put her into debt that she struggled to pay off for years. She told Smith she was fortunate to have control of her work schedule that allowed her to take her diversion classes during the day, which allowed her to avoid telling her boss about her arrest.

Still, the entire ordeal left Horváth angry. She moved out of San Francisco because of it. And three years after her case was dismissed, she still wasn’t over the experience.

“Everything was really tough afterwards, because I just felt so violated,” Horváth told Smith. “I had this feeling of totally being violated and totally wronged by the system.”

Four to Seven Days Jailed

“During these days, access to health care also became an issue, and so their primary objective was to gain access to these much-needed resources. Complaints about food and unsanitary conditions grew, but other concerns were highlighted as well. Detainees pointed to hostile, neglectful guards, the odd schedule and rigid rules that were arbitrarily applied, and violence—threatened and enacted, most often unpredictable—by guards and other inmates.” – Dr. Sandra Smith

Jorge Valenzuela was drunkenly walking out of a club one night when he unintentionally walked into a crime scene. Before he realized what he had done, a police officer tackled Valenzuela and beat him to the point he had two black eyes and a broken nose. The officers, Valenzuela told Smith, believed he was connected to the stabbing outside the club.

Police took Valenzuela, a 22-year-old Hispanic man from San Francisco, to a police station. He was charged with battery on a police officer, assaulting an officer, and threatening an officer. He said he struggles remembering exactly what happened, but questions how he could have done any of it when he was handcuffed.

Valenzuela spent six brutal days in jail. He told Smith he was assaulted, taunted, and threatened by jailers who learned of his charges. He was placed in the cell with a man known for committing sexual assaults, causing him to lose sleep. When he was transferred to a crowded cell, he said a man attacked him and he fought to protect himself. He told Smith he stayed up at night and focused on “trying not to die.”

Because Valenzuela was jailed so long, he lost his full-time job, but was able to talk his way back once released. He had to drop a class that he needed to receive his EMT certification. He’s incurred more than $3,600 in debt from bail and other fees. And three years later, his case is still pending.

There was a time Valenzuela considered himself an outgoing man, but he told Smith his arrest and pretrial detention changed that.

“I’m a little more reserved,” he said. “I’m a lot more cautious now.”

Eight or More Days Jailed

“Those detained for longer than one week were most concerned with delays they faced during the release process. And so their efforts were directed toward getting information they needed to facilitate release. They were most attentive to odd schedules and rigid rules, poor food quality, and importantly, violence. But they also reported a greater reliance on inmates for protection, for pastime activities, and help in accessing resources, and for advice on getting released.” – Dr. Sandra Smith

For Kevin Basa, being jailed pretrial was no worse than living on the streets. In his view, at least in jail he had a roof over his head and three meals a day.

Basa had a series of bad years that began with the loss of a job, then the relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, and then his family. Basa, a 37-year-old from San Francisco, found himself living on the streets. He began using drugs to cope with depression and anxiety.

That drug use led to charges and time in jail. After his son was born, Basa visited but was caught driving a stolen car and was arrested again. He spent three weeks in jail on auto theft charges, unable to afford bail, before he was released on his personal recognizance. He missed court dates and was arrested for outstanding warrants when officers would stop and frisk him on the streets.

“It’s tough to keep track of those things [court dates] when you’re out on the streets,” Basa told Smith.

As he went in and out of jail, he believed more officers noticed him on and stopped him more frequently because of his record. That affected his relationship with his family. He recalled a conversation to Smith in which they told him: “It’s good for you to stay there. It’s a better place for you.”

There was a point Basa thought things were trending upwards in his life. He had an interview for a job he was excited about. A cousin had given him a truck that needed some repairs that he could fix on his own. One day when he was working on the truck, an officer told him to move it out of a crosswalk. Because it wasn’t running, Basa said he couldn’t but he was working to fix it. When the officer drove by again and the truck was still there, the officer ran Basa’s name and saw he had a warrant. Basa was taken to jail and his truck was towed.

When he was released three weeks later, he learned he received a second interview with the job, but it was too late. He also didn’t have the money to get his truck out of the impound lot.

Basa finally reached an agreement with a judge. All the warrants and jail time he faced would be dropped in exchange for three years of probation.

Still, Basa told Smith he felt the damage was already done.

“I just feel like I got robbed by the police. I just got robbed by the country,” he told her. “I feel like the system is pulling me down. I don’t know why.”

Accountability Without Detention

As highlighted by Basa’s case, and as Smith’s research shows, the longer a person spends jailed before their case has been settled, the increased likelihood they’ll be arrested and jailed pretrial again.

“The effects of pretrial detention on future criminal legal involvement are especially pronounced for … individuals who likely would not have had future involvement had they not been held in detention,” Smith said.

But as Cotter’s case showed, the man ticketed for providing alcohol to minors, holding people accountable for low-level crimes can be done without jailing them.

When Cotter went before the neighborhood court, he said he felt respected and his side of the story heard, unlike the others who felt disrespected by jail staff and couldn’t get answers about their case, sometimes for days. Cotter also wasn’t saddled with debt in the form of court costs and fees, unlike others who had to take on odd jobs or rely on family or friends to pay their debts.

Ultimately, Cotter told Smith he learned his lesson without having to spend a second in jail.

He told Smith, “It was a win-win situation.”