Pretrial Justice Reform Initiative

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Across the country, police officers and leaders alike often complain that a suspect is back on the street before the officer completes the arrest paperwork. When citizens see the “bad guy” who was just arrested back on the street, they often ask law enforcement why they can’t do something to keep dangerous people off the streets. The answer is often simply because the defendant was able to pay his or her way out of jail.

The inconsistency of policy and guidelines for pretrial release decisions across the US creates a volatile public safety crisis leading to dangerous and even deadly consequences. The November 2009 execution of four Lakewood Washington police officers by a known dangerous offender who was improperly released on cash bond is a compelling example of this imminent danger.

The IACP recognizes that law enforcement leaders are critical stakeholders in their local criminal justice systems, and as such, have a powerful voice to open the discussion on how pretrial decision-making is handled and the consequences of that system. The IACP recognizes the critical need for bail reform; a critical first step is advocating for the use of a risk assessment for the judiciary to use when considering pretrial release.

In partnership with the Public Welfare Foundation and the Pretrial Justice Institute, the IACP has established the Pretrial Justice Reform Initiative. The goal of this initiative is to help raise awareness among local law enforcement leaders about pretrial decision-making and the impact it has on the safety of their officers and their communities. The initiative will also educate criminal justice leaders on how pretrial reform can save limited resources of their local criminal justice system.

The initiative seeks to have police leaders and criminal justice stakeholders at local levels ask three key questions:

  • Is some kind of objective and/or validated risk assessment used to help guide bail decisions?
  • Does current law in my jurisdiction allow for judges to deny bail to individuals who pose unmanageable risk of flight or danger?
  • If current law allows for preventive detention, how often and how is it used?

Currently in the U.S., a suspect’s release or detention pending trial is based almost exclusively on the charge and whether the suspect has enough money to bail himself or herself out of jail, rather than on an informed assessment of whether or not he or she is a danger to society and/or is likely to return to court for trial. Research has shown that under our current system, half of the most dangerous or likely to flee arrestees/defendants are able to make a monetary bail amount and leave jail unsupervised.  Conversely, limited jail space is often filled by individuals who would pose a low risk to public safety or to fail to appear to court, but who cannot afford to pay their bail fee. Public and officer safety, defendant accountability, and adhering to due process should be the foremost considerations in the issue of pretrial release.

Those who can safely be released should be released; and those who pose an unmanageable risk should be detained. The IACP supports reform that would result in safe, fair, and effective pretrial release based on individual risk, rather than on the suspect’s financial means.

For more information about the impact of pretrial decision making on local community justice and safety, how to engage local stakeholders in a dialogue about pretrial decision making, the value of validated risk assessments, the ability to use preventive detention, or any other questions you may have about IACP’s Pretrial Justice Reform Initiative, please contact Program Manager Jennifer Styles.

Watch Past IACP President Walt McNeil speak to the 2013 National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies Conference after accepting NAPSA's Partnership Award