Study Q&A: Report Examines Dangerous Effects of Pretrial Detention

By Shani Saxon Apr 23, 2019

The Vera Institute of Justice released a new report today (April 23) called “Justice Denied: The Harmful and Lasting Effects of Pretrial Detention.” The brief, commissioned by MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, digs deep into the harmful impact pretrial detention has on detained people.

The report reaches a number of conclusions, including the fact that pretrial detention is often influenced by race and socioeconomic status. It also found that judges tend to release women at higher rates and set lower bail amounts for them. But it also found women are less likely to be able to afford their bail. The biggest takeaway from the report is that pretrial detention causes more harm than good.

Colorlines spoke to Elizabeth Swavola, report co-author and program manager at the Vera Institute for Justice, and Laurie Garduque, criminal justice director at the MacArthur Foundation, about the significance of the research. 

Why was it so crucial to examine the effects of pretrial detention? 

Swavola: It is crucial to examine the effects of pretrial detention for several reasons. First, the number of people in pretrial detention has grown dramatically over time—433 percent between 1970 and 2015. Nearly two-thirds of people in jail today are there pretrial. As jurisdictions increasingly use pretrial detention, it is important to understand its consequences and analyze whether it actually achieves its intended goals of preventing failure to appear and new arrests. In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests pretrial detention is not as effective as system stakeholders may believe it to be. Studies also show that people who spend time in jail pretrial are treated more punitively than similarly situated people who are released: they are more likely to be convicted, sentenced to incarceration and to receive longer sentences. Finally, because inability to pay monetary bail is what often keeps people in pretrial detention, it has a disparate impact on poor and low-income communities and communities of color.

What were the most significant lessons to come from this report?

Swavola: A significant lesson learned is the need to reassess overreliance on pretrial detention and monetary bail. Pretrial detention may not increase court appearance rates and may actually make people more likely to become involved with the system again in the future, which calls into question its very purpose. System stakeholders should be aware of the harm their pretrial practices may be causing to both individuals and communities. Further, there is great injustice in the impact that someone’s ability to afford monetary bail has on the outcomes of their case and, more broadly, on their lives.

What impact do you want this report to have on the criminal justice reform movement?

Garduque: The Safety and Justice Challenge wants local leaders to rethink jails by reforming the unnecessary, inequitable and unfair use of jails by cities and counties. The impact of these practices falls most heavily on low income communities and people of color. Armed with this report, we want more communities to create their own plans for safely eliminating the misuse and overuse of jails. With nearly 11 million local jail admissions a year, reforms to the front end of the system have real potential to lower incarceration rates in America.