Testifying before the New Jersey state Senate’s budget and appropriations committee earlier this year, Judge Glenn A. Grant, the state’s acting administrative director of the courts, said:
It is important to remember that no criminal-justice release system can absolutely guarantee that every defendant released pretrial will obey the law or and will show up for court. The former system of cash bail certainly offered no such guarantee. Under that approach virtually all defendants were entitled to bail, and defendants who were able to post bail, regardless of their risk either to reoffend or to fail to appear in court, were released back into the community with no monitoring whatsoever.
Under Criminal Justice Reform, we have removed money from the equation and instead have an honest and direct conversation about whether a defendant is a risk to the community. For the first time, prosecutors can now file motions seeking to have high-risk defendants held until trial. For the first time, judges can decide to release defendants for monitoring by a newly created pretrial services until until trial. And for the first time, low-risk defendants no longer have to linger in jail for months at a time because they cannot afford to post even modest amounts of bail.
Juxtapose that with a state like Louisiana, which scored an F on the PJI report, as did 16 other states. As a result, Louisiana is holding close to 30 people in pretrial detention per 10,000 residents, the highest rate in the nation. The second closest is New Mexico, which detains 21.8 people per 10,000 residents for pretrial purposes.
New Orleans has been experimenting with pretrial-diversion programs and scaling back cash bail and other court fines as well. As recently reported in CityLab, these programs reflect what New Jersey realized when it started its reform programs: That finding alternatives to pretrial detention hasn’t been a threat to safety or led to an increase in people skipping trial. It’s also reduced New Orleans’s incarceration costs.
While 30 states were given a D or F in the PJI report, this work is still expanding, spurred in some places by action at the local level. In Cook County, Illinois, where Chicago sits, courts now operate under new rules that require judges to consider a defendant’s ability to pay before setting bonds. The counties of King, Spokane, and Yakima in Washington are all using pretrial-assessment tools to prevent unnecessary detentions and arrests. In New Mexico, voters approved a constitutional amendment last year that forbids detaining people pretrial because they can’t afford to post bail.
Four years ago, only 10 percent of the population lived in jurisdictions that offered these kinds of services. Today, 25 percent of the population does. Still, at least 75 percent of the time, a poor person is being held in jail for a petty offense, while Paul Manafort is going home.