THE ISSUE. Pretrial incarceration occurs when someone who has yet to be convicted of a crime is locked up while awaiting trial. Jail stays can range from a few days to a few years depending on the backlog of cases. Pretrial incarceration was originally purposed with detaining defendants who present a legitimate threat to public safety or who have a track record of failing to appear for court dates. However, it’s now largely determined based on inability to pay fines or fees such as monetary bail, traffic tickets, or court fees.
THE IMPACT. Taxpayers are footing the bill for jail stays that often times have an adverse effect on public safety. Research shows that, especially in regards to low-risk defendants, even brief jail stays can increase the chance of committing another crime in the future. A contributing factor for this is that a few days in a cell can lead to being laid off, losing housing, making it difficult to find and keep meaningful employment.
When someone who has mental health issues is locked up pretrial it can compound their situation. The same can be said for people who display signs of substance abuse.
Lastly, this can also create a vicious cycle of court debt. Once someone is locked up because they are unable to afford a fine or fee, they tend to rack up additional costs that are attached to court proceedings. Failure to pay this debt can result in more jail time for an indigent individual while defendants with thicker wallets are able to walk free.
Ability to pay a certain amount of money is not a strong predictor of intention to show up in court, nor does it reveal the level of risk of committing another crime.
THE CONSERVATIVE SOLUTION. — Public safety must be placed at the forefront of the criminal justice system by determining pretrial incarceration based on risk. Judges can gain a bigger picture of each individual and make decisions on a case-by-case basis if they utilize risk assessment tools that take criminal records into account. — Indigence should be considered when assigning fines or fees. — Give police officers the option to divert low-risk defendants with mental health or substance abuse issues to treatment programs rather than jail. —Offer alternatives to incarceration for unpaid fines or fees such as payment plans, community service, and digital court reminders.
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