‘Dramatic’ Reforms to Pretrial Practice Triggered by Pandemic: Survey

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The Crime Report on 07/02/2020 by Michael Gelb

There have been transformative changes in pretrial practices nationwide in the era of the coronavirus, according to a new, unpublished survey of several pretrial services agencies.

“You saw a lot of criminal justice stakeholders getting together on how best to handle this [the pandemic],” said Jim Sawyer, executive director of the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies (NAPSA), which conducted the survey.

“Our survey shows that they got it right.”

Kristin Bechtel, director of Criminal Justice Research at Arnold Ventures, said the changes constitute “the most dramatic shift in pretrial practice I’ve ever seen.”

Chief among the changes were reductions in the pretrial jail population.

According to the survey made available to The Crime Report, there was, for example, a 65.17 percent increase in cite and release, a 67.98 percent increase in release on personal recognizance in nonviolent cases, and an 81.46 percent increase in releases from jail for persons awaiting trial.

Virtually all court hearings were postponed, and there was a 59.88 percent decrease in bail amounts.

Importantly, in most of the jurisdictions where these reforms were implemented, crime rates remained relatively stable.

Jurisdictions also took steps to reduce police contact with civilians. For example, there was a striking 84.57 percent decrease in custodial arrests.

Furthermore, policies that were suspended by half or more than half included criminal filings for specific charges (e.g., nonviolent charges), the issuing and executing of warrants for failure to pay fines and fees, and the issuing and executing of warrants for failure to appear.

There was also a reduction in the obstacles defendants face in getting released from jail. The survey found an 11.73 percent decrease in fine and fee amounts, and court collection of those fines and fees was delayed by 46.55 percent.

NAPSA heard from pretrial agencies since March that they were making changes in light of COVID-19. Seeking more than anecdotal information, NAPSA launched a survey to study those changes, said Sawyer.

The survey was conducted between April and June of this year and included 197 respondents in 40 states and Washington, D.C.

For certain or all pretrial condition violations, nearly half of jurisdictions surveyed have:

  • reduced or suspended revoking or requesting revocation from the court, and
  • reduced or suspended addressing technical violations.

At the same time, there was a spike in virtual practices among jurisdictions across the country. Most jurisdictions increased video-based court hearings, telephone check-ins, electronic monitoring, and virtual reporting (e.g., via email, video conferencing, and phone calls).

Meanwhile, most jurisdictions temporarily suspended in-person office check-ins and in-person field check-ins, where applicable.

These changes are surprising given the outdated manner in which the criminal justice system normally conducts business, the researchers noted.

Additionally, eight percent of jurisdictions surveyed increased their use of early discharge from pretrial supervision, while almost half of the jurisdictions do not allow for such discharge regardless of the pandemic.

Although COVID-19 resulted in many positive outcomes for persons awaiting trial, it substantially impeded the justice system’s rehabilitative efforts.

Almost half of the jurisdictions surveyed were forced to reduce or suspend drug and alcohol monitoring. And, over 75 percent of jurisdictions reduced or suspended drug and alcohol testing.

Rehabilitation aside, the findings from the NAPSA survey demonstrate that jurisdictions can release people from pretrial detention, reduce police contact with civilians, and modernize the way it conducts hearings and other meetings.

Importantly, jurisdictions can do so without increasing crime rates.

In fact, there is evidence to suggest that crime rates – specifically homicide rates – decreased during the pandemic.

Making Changes Permanent?

That crime rates remained the same, or even decreased, presents a strong case for making some of these changes permanent, researchers said.

When asked if these changes can indeed be made permanent, Sawyer told The Crime Report, “It is very possible that some of the quote unquote new practices, which are practices that we’ve put in our national [pretrial] release standards…will stick around—and rightly so.”

Sawyer added, “the continuing discussion we will have to have is what did you [the pretrial system] learn during a pandemic that you can put into practice post-pandemic? In other words, how can you get closer to our NAPSA standards of pretrial release?”

When asked how exactly to make the above changes permanent, Sawyer responded that NAPSA must “be the leaders.”

He continued: “We have our national conference in September…We will have discussions during our conference about this.”

A copy of the survey can be accessed here.