Dear National Partnership Members,
As we embark on a new year, our team here at NPPJ would like to thank you for all of your vital work this past year in helping reform the nation’s pretrial justice system.
It goes without saying that 2020 brought a set of unique challenges for us all. But your work has never been more important at a time when more than 400,000 people are held in jail every day—many of whom are detained because they can’t afford cash bail—and more than $14 billion is spent nationwide every year to house those individuals. These harms are inflicted disproportionately on Black and Hispanic communities. After a year filled with protests against systemic racism within the criminal justice system, the need to reform the nation’s pretrial systems has never been more apparent.
Know that your work is being recognized at all levels. Take a look around the United States and the reforms we’ve seen this year. In Los Angeles County—the most populated county in the nation—voters elected a progressive prosecutor in George Gascón, who has, in a wave of sweeping reforms, promised to end the use of cash bail for misdemeanor and non-violent crimes. In Berkeley, California, city officials have opted to stop using police to conduct traffic stops and instead use unarmed city workers. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, city and Bernalillo County officials created a department aimed at better assisting behavioral health crisis 9-1-1 calls with professional counselors.
These types of reforms wouldn’t be possible without the tireless work you’ve done, some of which we have highlighted below.
COVID Reinforces Pretrial Reforms
When COVID-19 hit the United States earlier this year, many pretrial services agencies hurried to implement changes aimed at reducing jail populations and limiting contact as cases moved through the court system. Reforms already implemented left Harris County, Texas, had officials more prepared than most when the pandemic struck. Kelvin Banks with Harris County Pretrial Services, an NPPJ member, told us “Reform has been our focus for a while. So the reforms have already been in place to allow us to quickly and efficiently process people and, in many cases, we’re able to keep them out of jail.” (Read more about Harris County’s efforts here.)
Harris County isn’t alone. A study by the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies showed significant reforms have been enacted across the county. The survey found between April 16 and June 1, most of the responding 197 agencies increased the use of video conferencing for court hearings, pretrial release, release on personal recognizance for non-violent crimes, and cite and release.
Jim Sawyer, the executive director of NAPSA, said the jurisdictions haven’t seen a dramatic increase in crime rates or recidivism. “Now we need to have a national dialogue,” Sawyer said. “We need to have a large-scale conversation and talk about how if you could do this during a pandemic and not have terrible things happen … why can’t you do that when there’s not a pandemic?” Read more about the NAPSA’s study findings here.
- Emptier Jails and Quicker Release: A Look Into Kentucky’s COVID Pretrial Reforms
- COVID Reforms Help Improve Communication, Remove Barriers in Thurston County Pretrial Services
- San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project: Divesting from Law Enforcement and Investing in Community
A validation study conducted by NPPJ partners in three U.S. counties found the Public Safety Assessment was performing well in accurately predicting the success of released individuals to appear in court or refrain from criminal activity during pretrial. The PSA weighs factors such as prior convictions, court appearance history, and prior violent convictions to give decision-makers a sense of an individual’s needs. The studies were conducted by partners RTI, the Access to Justice Lab at Harvard Law School, and the Center for Effective Public Policy in Lucas County, Ohio; Harris County, Texas; and McLean County, Ill. Read more about the studies here.
Juvenile Pretrial Justice Reform
Mary Ann Scali, the executive director of the National Juvenile Defender Center, says America has developed an addiction to incarceration—and children aren’t immune. “When we incarcerate children for low-level conduct, it actually makes communities less safe, because all it does is teach children to distrust the system,” Scali said. Youth of color are specifically prone to face injustices in the system as data show they’re more likely to be removed from their homes and detained in juvenile facilities. The NJDC, an NPPJ partner, works to ensure every child has adequate representation by lawyers specifically trained in the juvenile defense system. “The evidence couldn’t be more clear that the vast majority of youth being brought into the courtroom don’t need to be detained,” Scali said. Read more in our Q&A with Scali and NJDC.
‘Criminal Processing System’
Stephen Hanlon, general counsel for NPPJ partner the National Association of Public Defense, has long said the nation doesn’t have a criminal justice system, but a “criminal processing system.” Hanlon, in partnership with NPPJ partner the American Bar Association, launched a study in Louisiana that found public defenders were carrying caseloads five times more than the national standards. (Hanlon has done similar studies in other states.) The burdensome caseloads aren’t exclusive to Louisiana. Across the United States, public defender offices are facing budget shortfalls, overworked attorneys, and limited resources in defending the most vulnerable. Now, Hanlon is dedicating his career blowing up “the entire criminal processing system and turn it into a criminal justice system.” Read more about Hanlon’s work here.
In order to create the necessary change, Hanlon and others are shifting their focus to data and analytics. With better data, advocates say, public defender offices will be better equipped to fight for more funding and better resources, including pay parity among prosecutors and public defenders. Leading the charge is a bill before Congress. The EQUAL Defense Act of 2019, introduced by California Sen. Kamala Harris (now Vice President-elect Harris), would provide federal funding to public defender offices nationwide. But those dollars would come with stipulations, including that each office implement a case management system to actively track timekeeping and caseloads. Read more about the data-driven focus here.
Because of your tireless efforts, we have built a wave of momentum we will carry well into 2021. We look forward to spotlighting your work and collaborating on new ideas that will further reduce unnecessary and unjust pretrial detention.
Have a safe and happy holiday season, from our team to yours.
The National Partnership for Pretrial Justice, an Arnold Ventures community