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Pretrial detention increases long-term risk to public safety

Holding most individuals accused of an offense in jail for any length of time before trial may not guarantee the safeguards that many people assume detention provides, according to a new study released by Arnold Ventures.

When a person is arrested and accused of committing a crime, a judge must decide whether it is safe to release the individual back into the community before trial, or whether the person should be detained—whether, in fact, “pretrial detention promotes future court appearance or public safety,” wrote Christopher Lowenkamp of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, lead author of the study.

The study, a follow-up to an earlier report, the “Hidden Costs of Pretrial Detention,” in fact suggested that “ pretrial detention actually makes things worse for justice-involved individuals.”

The conclusions were released at a time when bail reform and the determination of “dangerousness” has become a hot-button issues across the country, with law enforcement and traditional law-and-order supporters blaming the movement to relax guidelines for pretrial detention for rising violent crime rates.

In fact, the study suggests that in most cases pretrial detention can increase the likelihood of an individual becoming involved in criminal behavior as he or she is ensnared in the justice system.

The findings, prepared by a team at Core Correctional Solutions, were based on data on nearly 1.5 million people booked into jail in Kentucky between 2009 and 2018.

The researchers found that by using more “fine-grained data” they were able to confirm a large body of existing research suggesting that pretrial detention “inflicts harm” on individuals, families and communities.

“Not only does it compromise public safety, but it also forces the public to bear additional costs—not only financially but also the human costs on people and their families-of incarcerating citizens unnecessarily.”

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The key finding was that pretrial detention for any length of time, not just for three days as previous research indicated, is associated with a higher likelihood of  greater justice-involvement.

Just as significantly, the researchers found that releasing an individual accused of nonviolent offenses on his or her recognizance did not increase the likelihood that the individual would fail to show up at the appointed trial date. So-called “Failure to Appear” rates were not substantially affected by whether a person was detained before trial or not, the study said.

The study also concluded that pretrial detention was associated with an increased likelihood of “receiving …a longer sentence compared to those that were released pretrial.”

Generally, the researchers found that race was not a significant factor in the relationship between pretrial detention and trial outcomes, or in the failure to appear rate.


The authors write that these key findings have “important implications” for policymakers. The primary recommendation was that in most cases detention should be avoided during the pretrial phase.

“This is not to say that certain justice-involved persons cannot ever pose a threat to public safety should they be released,” the study said.

But in most instances, “jail is likely the most harmful option during the pretrial stage.”

The study added: “Recognizing that the majority of individuals are successful pretrial — as a general rule, jail should not be the default choice.”

The researchers also recommend that judges should be informed with respect to the consequences of pretrial detention, noting that it could create a “deterrent effect.”

“It is important to offer resources to justice-involved individuals during the pretrial phase,” the paper concludes. “Research has consistently demonstrated that a service-delivery approach to criminal justice—one that emphasizes treatment and support—is far more effective than one based on punishment.”

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“The costly option of routinely detaining individuals prior to trial does not appear to result in increased community safety or improved court appearance rates.”

The full report can be accessed here.

This report was first published by The Crime Report.

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