Pre-trial release/supervision has been a part of the broader community supervision world since the early 1920’s and initially focused on practices that ensured a person’s future appearance. However, beginning in the 1960 the focus shifted somewhat to a public safety perspective. This did not negate the practice of money in exchange for release.
Ironically in 1964 Robert F. Kennedy, in testimony before a congressional subcommittee said that in terms of pretrial issues “That problem, simply stated is: the rich man and the poor man do not receive equal justice in our courts. And in no area is this more evident than in the matter of bail. Bail has only one purpose – to insure that a person who is accused of a crime will appear in court for his trial.” Mr. Kennedy went on to say “Every year in this country, thousands of persons are kept in jail for weeks and even months following arrest.
They are not yet proven guilty. They may be no more likely to flee than you or I. But, nonetheless, most of them must stay in jail because, to be blunt, they cannot afford to pay for their freedom.”
Despite this quote from 1964, pre-trial programs did not see real change until the 1990’s when agencies began applying other criteria (beyond money) to determine a person’s likelihood of future appearances. Risk assessments and criminal history investigation became tools agencies can use to make release decisions.
It has not been lost on the criminal justice community that there are high risk individuals who have access to money. That said, it is important to understand the unique position that pretrial holds within the larger system. Other forms of community supervision are focused on risk reduction, accountability and reparation.
In the pretrial world the focus is appearance and potential future criminal conduct. This difference in mission and culture play a significant role in how agencies see and conduct their work. Its impact should not be understated.
Recently the Justice Clearinghouse held a webinar entitled “Decision Day: Options for Pre-trial Management”. In addition to some of the information included above the speakers also emphasized two key points.
First is that defining outcomes and having the data to report on them is crucial to the success of any pre-trial program.
Secondly it is important to apply the supervision risk principles that other criminal justice programs employ. Supervision must be risk based and the issue of over-supervision must not be ignored.
As often happens with changes in the criminal justice system the need for best practices and standards arises quickly. Fortunately, the National Institute of Corrections has provided guidance via a number of resource guides. Likewise, the National Association of Pre-trial Agencies provides a variety of resources for agencies looking to implement or improve a pretrial program.