For years, California has experienced crowding in its county jails. This problem has been exacerbated by the significant number of people detained in jail while awaiting trial, many for nonviolent offenses and often because they cannot afford bail. Because these large pretrial populations cost taxpayers money and take up scarce jail space (and because recent policy changes give counties more responsibility for individuals accused of or convicted of committing lower-level crimes), many California counties are now investing in their pretrial systems.
These approaches assess individual risk factors to inform whether a person should remain in jail or be released pending their trial, with or without conditions of release. County leaders, including sheriffs, chiefs of probation and judges, are considering how to best assess individual risk, incorporate this information into pretrial decision-making and effectively supervise defendants in the community to increase court appearance rates, minimize pretrial misconduct and reduce unnecessary use of jail.
Pretrial services have the potential to reduce jail populations and move justice systems toward more risk-based decision-making. Therefore, the counties implementing pretrial practices are becoming pioneers in a larger shift toward reducing over-reliance on incarceration and instead aligning local resources with best practices — a shift with significant public support.
Individuals detained pretrial can experience instability in their work and personal lives. For example, a survey of people who could not afford bail in Maryland found that 25% feared losing their jobs and 40% said they would lose their homes.
To provide a broad overview of pretrial services across the state, Californians for Safety and Justice partnered with the Crime and Justice Institute at CRJ to survey California counties about local pretrial practices. The survey was administered electronically in March and April 2015. A representative from each of the state’s 58 counties responded to the survey.
The 15-item survey addressed a range of practices for managing pretrial populations, from pretrial diversion to jail expansion. However, the survey placed emphasis on core functions of pretrial proven to reduce failures to appear in court and pretrial misconduct, specifically: screening arrestees for eligibility for pretrial release; applying an empirical risk assessment instrument to inform release decisions; and offering a range of pretrial supervision options for individuals who are released to the community.