The past five years have witnessed a remarkable growth in support for reforming our nation’s pretrial justice system (the portion of criminal justice practice that begins with a person’s first contact with law enforcement and ends once any resulting charges are resolved, usually through a plea, a trial, or dismissal). This unprecedented interest emerges from a growing awareness that existing pretrial operations lead to unnecessary detention of poor and working class people—disproportionately people of color—while those with money are able to go free with little or no supervision, regardless of any danger they may present. Current pretrial justice practice is, in short, unfair, unsafe, a waste of public resources, and a significant contributor to the nation’s widely recognized problem of mass incarceration.
There is, of course, no single pretrial justice system in the United States. The structure of criminal justice in this country allows for significant variation from state to state, and even from county to county. This decentralization has its benefits. But it presents challenges to those who would seek systemic improvements.
The Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI) developed this report card to minimize those challenges. Its foundational premise is that American pretrial practice—in any state or jurisdiction—should be able to maximize liberty among people who are entitled to the presumption of innocence, while also protecting public safety and ensuring effective court operations. This is, after all, an aspiration traced to our founding fathers and beyond, which former Chief Justice of the United States William Rehnquist eloquently summarized when he wrote, “In our society, liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception.”
The analysis presented here finds, however, that the state of pretrial justice in America falls far short of Chief Justice Rehnquist’s vision. Too many people in the pretrial phase are locked up for days, weeks, and even months, when, according to both law and research, they should be released.