Across the criminal justice field, there is widespread agreement about the need for more rigorous research to answer foundational questions about the way the system currently functions and how it can be improved. In the pretrial phase specifically, decision makers often lack basic information about who is in their jails; why those individuals are being detained; and the ways in which being held before trial affect the defendant, various case outcomes, the system itself, and the community as a whole.
In order to gain a better understanding of the impacts of pretrial decision making and provide officials with information that can inform their criminal justice policies, LJAF funds research and monitors the existing literature on key pretrial issues. While additional research is still needed, the evidence to date shows that the initial decision about whether to release or detain a defendant can have a significant impact on what ultimately happens in his or her case.
Several recent independent studies examined a variety of factors, including the impact of pretrial incarceration on convictions, sentencing, and other outcomes such as future employment and recidivism. Here is a brief synopsis of each project:
And in cases where the evidence of a person’s guilt is weaker, the negative impacts of pretrial incarceration are even more pronounced—in these cases, defendants are 30 percent more likely to plead guilty and receive sentences that are roughly 18 months longer. Stevenson suggests that detention may place “undue coercive pressure” on the defendant to take a guilty plea rather than risk trial. Additional possibilities are that detained defendants are less able to gather evidence or prepare their case, and moreover are unable to demonstrate to the judge that they can stay out of trouble.
Dobbie, Goldin, and Yang also studied other important outcomes. They found that pretrial release or detention does not affect whether a person will commit another crime up to four years in the future. However, when a person is released before trial, he or she is 14 percent more likely to file a tax return three or four years later—and, therefore, to be employed—than a defendant who was held. Pretrial release also increases a person’s unemployment insurance benefits by more than 100 percent and his or her Earned Income Tax Credit benefits by 66 percent. In addition, the data suggest that pretrial release leads to a 27 percent improvement in employment over the next three to four years. These indicators demonstrate that when a defendant is detained before trial rather than released, he or she tends to get separated from the more formal job market and associated government programs.
The way that pretrial incarceration impacts future criminal behavior remains an open question. As mentioned, Dobbie et al. found that pretrial release or detention has no significant effect on whether a person will commit a crime up to four years in the future, while both Gupta et al. and Heaton et al. concluded that pretrial detainees are more likely to commit future crimes.
Given that much is still unknown about the effects of pretrial incarceration, our team will continue to support and monitor research in this and other areas of the criminal justice system. High-quality research is essential in order to develop effective reforms that will ensure that the system operates in a fair, effective, cost-efficient manner.