Using risk assessment to better inform judicial release decisions is well supported by data. In the first six months after Kentucky adopted a new statewide risk assessment in 2013, the share of defendants released before trial rose slighty (from 68 percent the previous four years, to 70 percent), while new criminal activity by those released dropped by 15 percent. Court appearances remained stable during this period. In Texas, a recent comparison study by the Public Policy Research Institute showed that pretrial defendants released in the county using a validated risk-assessment tool committed 53 percent fewer violent felonies than those released from the county that relied on financial bail. Such data show that risk assessments do a better job of preventing both types of misclassifications: detaining lower-risk defendants who should be released and releasing higher-risk defendants who should be detained.
America also has too many criminal laws. In Texas alone, there are more than 1,700 statutory offenses, and only two do not (commonly) result in arrest. States should seek to reduce the number of these offenses that carry a possibility of jail time, allowing cases to be dispensed of more rapidly.
Pre-booking police diversion, such as the Law Enforcement-Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program pioneered in Seattle, represents an opportunity to identify individuals who may not need to be brought to jail — particularly for low-level drug offenses. Studies show that LEAD reduces recidivism among participants by 22 percent compared with a control group. Besides this obvious improvement in street-level crime, LEAD participants circumvent the traditional criminal-justice system — allowing them to avoid collateral consequences of a conviction while availing themselves of an opportunity to get help for an addiction.
There has been a noticeable tenor mounting across the country that rural areas have been forgotten in the hustle and bustle of American life. Growth in rural jails has been no different. We should use this recognition as an opportunity to reverse course. We need to protect public safety and ensure a defendant’s appearance in court, but the presumption of pretrial liberty must not get lost in the din.