NEW YORK, NY—Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) today released the results of three research studies, conducted over two years, that found that extended pretrial detention is correlated with longer jail and prison terms, increased criminal activity after cases are over, and a decreased likelihood that defendants will return to court.
More than 60 percent of people in our nation’s jails are being held prior to trial – and detaining these pretrial defendants costs $9 billion annually. The science on pretrial detention, including the three studies released today by LJAF, overwhelmingly points to the need for a new approach that considers the risks individual defendants pose and the impact that detention and supervision may have on crime.
“Today’s research begins to answer critical questions about how we can make our communities safer, make our criminal justice system more just, and use our already scarce resources more wisely,” said LJAF Vice President of Criminal Justice Anne Milgram. “These studies show that the earliest decisions made in a criminal case may impact long-term recidivism, the likelihood of a jail or prison sentence and the length of that sentence, and the chance that a defendant will commit new crimes or fail to return to court before trial. More research is needed, and more attention must be spent on these critical choices that are made day in and day out across our nation.”
Sentencing: The first study, which looked at state court data, found that defendants held for the entire pretrial period were four times more likely to be sentenced to jail and three times more likely to be sentenced to prison than defendants released before trial. In addition, their jail sentences were three times longer, and their prison sentences were twice as long. A separate study found similar results in the context of federal courts. These studies controlled for other factors in the data, meaning that defendants compared to one another were similar in every known way – except for their pretrial release/detention status.
Future Criminal Activity: The second study, which examined data on 153,000 defendants in Kentucky during 2009 and 2010, uncovered strong correlations between the length of time low- and moderate-risk defendants were detained before trial and the likelihood that they would reoffend in both the short and long term. Even for relatively short periods behind bars, low-and moderate-risk defendants who were detained for more days were more likely to commit additional crimes in the pretrial period – and were also more likely to do so during the two years after their cases ended. This study, too, compared defendants who were matched on all the other measurable variables.
Pretrial Supervision: The third study, which looked at defendants in two U.S. states, found that moderate- and high-risk defendants who were released and received pretrial supervision were significantly more likely to appear for their day in court than those who were unsupervised. In addition, long periods of supervision (more than 180 days) were related to a decrease in new criminal activity.
As important as these findings are, there remains an acute need for more research in this area. For ethical and practical reasons, it would be difficult in many instances to conduct randomized controlled trials where judges would be asked to make detention, release, and supervision decisions based on research objectives. As a result, studies such as these do not prove causation. Although the findings noted above are observational, and not causal, the correlations are so striking that they merit further research.
The new studies follow the release last week of new LJAF research showing that scientific, data-driven risk assessments can assist judges in making decisions about what risks defendants pose and allow jurisdictions to spend less money on pretrial incarceration while better protecting the public. Last week, LJAF also announced the creation of a new pretrial risk assessment that is being pilot-tested and will ultimately be available for use by judges across the country.
The research summary may be accessed at www.arnoldfoundation.com/research/criminaljustice.
About Laura and John Arnold Foundation
Laura and John Arnold Foundation is private foundation that currently focuses its strategic investments on criminal justice, education, public accountability, and research integrity. LJAF has offices in Houston and New York City. www.arnoldfoundation.org.