Researchers focus on reforms in New York, Texas.
New York bail reform dominated headlines in 2022 — and drove the most-read stories for NPPJ as well.
While politicians and pundits drove misleading narratives about bail reform driving up crime rates, researchers who look at the actual data have largely reached the conclusion that new bail laws are working as intended. Fewer people are being detained pretrial as judges rely less on wealth-based detention, and public safety isn’t harmed.
“There are such a huge range of benefits of not keeping people in jail, especially those who are charged with nonviolent, low-level offenses,” said Olive Lu, senior research associate with the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College. “They’re able to go back to work, they’re able to continue to provide for their families, and they’re able to continue to be productive members of society.”
Here’s a look at our most-read stories of the past year.
The public safety assessment, more commonly referred to as the PSA, is used in courtrooms across the country for pretrial settings. The algorithmic instrument provides an evaluation to a judge on a person’s chances they will appear in court and avoid new arrests while released pretrial. A judge makes the final ruling on all decisions. But a group of researchers with the A2J Lab at Harvard University are embarking to determine the effects that algorithm-assisted recommendations have on human decision-making.
A person who is held in pretrial detention prior to conviction or accepting a plea deal is often credited time back they spent detained. Kimberly Kessler Ferzan argues the practice — while seemingly a small benefit to a largely unjust criminal legal system — needs to be reconsidered.
“The Supreme Court keeps telling us that pretrial detention is not punishment, and yet we turn around and give credit for time served and count it toward punishment,” Ferzan said.
As researchers with the CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance continue their research into New York bail reform, one thing is clear, says associate research director Jennifer Ferone: Scapegoating bail reform isn’t the answer for the rise in violent crime in New York.
“You need a full-scale evaluation of bail reform with comparison groups and controls, and we haven’t been able to do that yet,” Ferone said. “So, to point fingers and blame bail reform at this point is just not accurate.”
Another report, this one published by the Brennan Center for Justice, paints a clear picture against critics’ arguments that bail reform is causing a rise in crime. The report had three key findings:
- There is no evidence linking bail reform to the 2020–‘21 crime increase.
- Crime rose in jurisdictions both with and without bail reform.
- Crime is complex, and policymakers should be wary of simplistic answers.
“If you’re looking for evidence that bail reform caused a rise in crime, you’d be coming up blank right now,” says Ames Grawert, senior policy counsel for the Brennan Center and the report’s author.
Brian Middleton became the first Democrat elected to the office in nearly 30 years in Fort Bend County, Texas, and the first Black man elected to lead the District Attorney’s Office in the county’s history. Now in charge, Middleton makes it a point to seek “justice and humanity” as he brings a reform-minded approach to the office — reducing cash bail, implementing second-chance programs, reducing trial delays. He’s made good on his campaign promise to work with politicians on both sides of the political aisle in an effort to provide a fairer system.
“We have to do what’s right. And we have to put aside partisanship and do the right thing — at all times,” Middleton said.
Jullian Harris-Calvin, the director of the Greater Justice New York program for the Vera Institute of Justice, explained the effects of New York’s bail laws and why continuing to invest in evidence-based policy solutions make communities safer.
“I’m a former public defender and I’ve had clients who went into a CVS and stole laundry detergent or they’ve snatched a sandwich from Starbucks,” Harris-Calvin said. “Those aren’t crimes that are part of some Machiavellian criminal enterprise. They arise from drug use or mental health or poverty issues. If we’re not addressing those issues, we’re not going to keep communities and families safe.”
Darrell Jordan, who presides over Harris County’s Criminal Court No. 16, wanted to reform the county’s bail system that for decades relied on unconstitutional wealth-based detention. Jordan, a Democrat, testified in federal court against that system and later helped write new bail policies that created uniform rules across the county’s misdemeanor courts.
“Why is bail only a safety issue when it comes to poor people? Why is it that a person with money with the exact same profile — I don’t care if it’s murder, armed robbery, or stealing bubblegum — why is it that if you have money to pay your bail amount that you are safe and a better person?” Jordan asked.
In 2019, Harris County, Texas, the nation’s fourth-largest county, agreed to a landmark settlement that would reform the county’s misdemeanor bail system. Prior to the settlement, a federal judge ruled the system unconstitutional for wrongfully jailing thousands of people pretrial simply because they couldn’t afford cash bail.
A federal monitor tasked with tracking the reforms recently released its fourth report detailing the effects of those reforms.
The result, says Brandon Garrett, the lead federal monitor, is “we are seeing fewer people in the misdemeanor system and also fewer people coming back into the system.”
A study that reviewed nearly 1.5 million cases of people booked into Kentucky jails between 2009-2018 showed the damaging effects of pretrial detention all too clearly.
“The longer you spend in pretrial detention,” said study author Christopher Lowenkamp, “the poorer outcomes you have.”
Kalief Browder’s name wasn’t always synonymous with bail reform in New York. But after his case became known statewide, lawmakers used his story to reform the state’s pretrial systems.
Browder, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, spent more than 1,100 days detained in Rikers Island Jail on charges of stealing a backpack. Neither he — nor his family — could afford his $3,000 bail. Browder rejected numerous plea deals and insisted on proving his innocence before a jury. His case was ultimately dismissed.
“[Browder’s] story highlights the inequities in the pretrial system. He was jailed for a low-level theft and held on bail that was probably out of reach for most New Yorkers,” said Cecilia Low-Weiner, research associate with the CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance. “It really raised the question: Is it fair to detain someone for a relatively minor offense, where the harm done was minimal, and the person hasn’t been convicted of anything?”