“When They See Us” Shines a Light on Pretrial Reform

From Selma to 13TH, Ava DuVernay’s films inspire meaningful discussions about the criminal justice system. By recounting real-world injustices, she asks us to interrogate moments in history that have long been misperceived and misunderstood.

With the release of the limited Netflix series When They See Us, DuVernay proves that what happened thirty years ago is still relevant today. The series follows the true story of Kevin Richardson, Antron Mccray, Raymond Santana Jr., Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam, who were falsely accused, convicted and imprisoned in 1989.

Through the eyes of five boys in Harlem, NY, the series lifts up the horrific truths of our criminal justice system: from racial profiling, police brutality, intimidation and coercion; to precinct practices and pretrial incarceration; to wrongful conviction, mistreatment in prisons, and the challenges of post-incarceration return to the community.

In shining a light on these undeniable truths about the criminal justice system, When They See Us reinforces the importance of the current conversation about pretrial reform. Here’s what we should take away from it:

  • Far too many people are locked up in jails simply because they can’t afford bail. The series shows a glimpse of the pretrial process, in which three of the five boys were denied bail. Jail time due to the unaffordability of bail separates families, robs kids of their childhoods, and comes at an enormous cost to all of us without making us safer. We must reduce the use of bail so that the most vulnerable among us are no longer unnecessarily incarcerated.


  • The presumption of innocence is a core American principle that is too often ignored in the pretrial justice system. If people are innocent until proven guilty, then their ability to pay should not determine whether or not they are detained until their trial. In a case lacking any meaningful evidence, the Exonerated Five were presumed guilty from the start—they were denied due process, interrogated for hours without lawyers or parents present, and held before trial.


  • Current pretrial detention conditions are coercive and can lead to ill-advised plea deals. As shown in the series, police coerced false confessions from the boys, most of whom were minors interrogated without their parents present. Even without this kind of egregious misconduct, the realities of pretrial detention today incentivizes people to accept plea deals that get them out of jail and home to their families.


  • It’s no secret that the current pretrial justice system disproportionately detains people of color and low-income people. As shown in the series, many people in positions of power, including law enforcement, made snap judgments and poor decisions driven by implicit and explicit racial bias–setting off a chain reaction that changed the course of these boys’ lives forever. Decades of research on bail decisions have shown that Black people face higher bail amounts than white people with similar arrest charges and criminal histories and that the race of the person arrested plays a significant role in bail and pretrial detention decisions.

Among many things, DuVernay reminds us to honor the humanity in people’s stories. Arnold Ventures is committed to reducing unnecessary pretrial incarceration and the use of money bail in America. Learn more about AV’s views on pretrial justice reform and the philanthropy’s support for the National Partnership for Pretrial Justice.